WASHINGTON – “I don’t oppose all wars,” said Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, in 2002. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”
Few would describe Obama’s use of military force against the Islamic State as rash, given the time he took in deciding to act. But the more we learn about this intervention, the more it appears to violate the “dumb” half of the president’s dictum. The purposes, parameters and prospects of the war are increasingly uncertain. Americans have a right to be concerned about the whole enterprise.
I realize that the war has only just begun and that the United States and its coalition partners are still sorting out their roles. I also realize that the U.S.-led airstrikes are having real impact. Absent the bombing campaign, the besieged city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border almost surely would have fallen to Islamic State forces by now. And the heartland of Iraq’s Kurdish region might be gravely threatened.
But it is necessary to ask whether Obama’s strategy offers a plausible path from the present situation to the ultimate goal, which the president says is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. It is also necessary to ask whether certain unintended – but glaringly obvious – consequences of the president’s war plan are fully being taken into account.
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In the plausibility department, we now know more about Obama’s skepticism concerning one of the central elements of his plan: training and arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the president commissioned a CIA study of past U.S. attempts to arm insurgencies. The review found that, with rare exceptions, such efforts had minimal impact on how conflicts turned out.
This week, The Washington Post reported that Syrian rebel forces will not even be trained to seize back territory from the Islamic State. Instead, the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran noted, the as-yet unidentified moderate rebels will be instructed and equipped to hold territory and prevent further Islamic State advances.
From the military point of view, this makes sense – but only because Obama has been definitive in promising that no U.S. combat troops will be sent to Iraq or Syria. Without U.S. spotters on the ground to coordinate air support and without teams of U.S. advisers to lead inexperienced local units into battle, attempts by rebel forces to conquer land would amount to suicide missions.
It’s useful to remember that all this is still theoretical. The Pentagon hopes to send up to 5,000 Syrian rebels a year into the fray, but first they must be recruited, vetted, given about eight weeks of training in Saudi Arabia and finally deployed. This process is just beginning.
But what is the point if all that these forces will be able to accomplish is defense? More importantly, what will potential recruits see as the point? Surely they will have doubts about risking their lives for a battle plan that does not involve attacking the Islamic State – and that does not even contemplate action against the murderous forces of dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom most rebels consider the real enemy.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group based in Britain, estimated Thursday that 553 people have been killed thus far in Syria by U.S.-led airstrikes. Of the total, according to the group, 464 were Islamic State fighters, 57 were militants from Jabhat al-Nusra and 32 were civilians.
The happiest person in Syria may be Assad. With the allied airstrikes pounding the regime’s most capable foe, Assad’s generals have “dramatically” increased air and ground assaults against moderate rebel forces in and around Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.
By the time U.S.-trained rebels are ready to take the field, one wonders if there will be any “moderate” rebel territory left for them to defend.
The situation in Iraq is almost equally unpromising. Islamic State militants have continued to advance in Anbar province, despite U.S. airstrikes, and are once again besieging the Yazidi minority in the north. It is not inconceivable that the Iraqi government will forge the political consensus and military prowess needed to drive out the jihadists. But it is unlikely.
This is not a call for deeper U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria. But if degrade-and-destroy is really the goal, I don’t see how deeper involvement will be avoided. This has morass written all over it. And morasses, as Obama knows, are dumb.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.