Joseph Miller is the pen name for a ranking Department of Defense official with a background in U.S. special operations and combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked in strategic planning.
President Barack Obama announced that he is actively considering taking military action in Iraq after al-Qaida-linked militants made stunning gains in what has become a rapidly deteriorating situation. The president would be right to do so if those military strikes were limited to the al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in the region, but the bottom line is that any military action the U.S. takes will be little more than a band aid for the sucking chest wound that is Syria.
The invading terrorists, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have operated virtually unimpeded since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. The United States’ military had recommended leaving a stay behind counterterrorism force in Iraq to prevent al-Qaida and its affiliates from mounting a comeback, but neither the Obama nor the Maliki administrations wanted that to occur for respective domestic political considerations.
The president has ruled out the use of American ground forces, but the U.S. Navy is sending an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf to provide him with options, should he decide to order airstrikes in support of Iraqi ground forces (Iraq has no combat aircraft). But any military action Obama decides to take in Iraq is near futile, as the end goal of the operation would at best return the situation in the region to where it was a week ago.
This is a reactive, short-term military solution to a long-term policy problem that is larger than the current crisis in Iraq. And the United States appears to have no policy.
The Syrian civil war is in its third year. There appears to be no end in sight, and after spilling into Lebanon, it has finally spilled across the border into neighboring Iraq, threatening to destabilize the entire region.
The conflict has dragged on as al-Qaida affiliated insurgents fight security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for control, and well over 150,000 civilians have been killed as their country has been laid to waste. Syria is very quickly becoming a lawless, failed state, which has allowed these al-Qaida-affiliated militants to set up base there.
The militants are so comfortable, they’ve moved their families in to live with them in their camps — a perceived level of security they haven’t felt since Sept. 10, 2001. The militants were able to use this lawless safe haven in Syria to organize, train and equip for the invasion of Iraq.
The failure of Obama and other western powers to take decisive action in Syria to end the civil war has created the situation that now threatens Baghdad. The president ruled out direct military intervention in Syria when he flip-flopped on his own red line foreign policy position, but has since stated that the United States has been providing material support to moderate rebel forces. What the Obama administration fails to understand is that by simply supplying the rebels in Syria, the United States has provided just enough support to keep the rebels in the fight but not enough support for them to win — creating the bloody stalemate that has allowed al-Qaida and their friends to establish roots.
The Obama administration is still under the illusion that a peaceful settlement to the conflict can be negotiated through diplomatic channels, and that al-Assad will step down. So far, there is no evidence to suggest this will occur, and all the while the fighting continues to rage — and civilians continue to die.
But while our attention is focused on how to combat the terrible symptoms sweeping through Iraq, America is missing the cancer festering in Syria. That cancer hasn’t just spread to Lebanon and, now, Iraq. And if left unchecked, that cancer will continue to spread, potentially even bringing disease to Jordan.
The United States needs to tackle the cancer. And to do that, the president will need a workable strategy to end the Syrian civil war.