Cutting Through the Nonsense
President Obama has ordered airstrikes against the non-state actor the Islamic State (IS) a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has also ordered an airlift of food, water and medicine to Iraqi religious minorities who have fled their homes and who are now living on Mt. Sinjar. IS, a ruthless militant organization, has fought its way through Iraq with surprising speed and, as I write this, is only a few miles outside of Erbil, a major city in the Kurdish region of Iraq and where a US consulate is.
In his weekly address, President Obama said that the broad strategic goals of the US military operations in Iraq are to protect US citizens in Erbil, address the humanitarian crisis, prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and to urge Iraqis to reconcile, unify, and defend their country. While the president insists that this military operation will be limited, that the United States will not slide into another protracted military engagement, that there will be no commitment of US troops on the ground, we hear complaints that limited airstrikes will not be enough to stop IS.
This is a fighting force that is well armed with US weapons abandoned by some members of Iraq's military. The group robbed a bank full of money provided by US taxpayers. The group also receives funding from wealthy people in the region who are sympathetic to their cause. They attract fighters from Europe and the United States who have a misguided view of the meaning of the concept of jihad in Islam.
This is a ruthless, determined, well-funded, well-armed organization. There is no question about this. The nonsense rolls in like an early morning fog when some journalists and analysts tell us that IS owes its strength to President Obama's unwillingness to become more militarily involved in Syria at the beginning of its civil war. IS, they say, filled a vacuum.
Enough of this nonsense. Enough. President Obama did not intervene in Syria and did not do more to arm the Syrian rebels for good reasons. The Syrian opposition lacked unity then and now and it included groups such as IS. There was no reason to believe the weapons given to "moderates" would not end up in the hands of IS. Besides that, all of the various military options would have come with a high price tag and uncertain outcomes.
In a July 19, 2013 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin, General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlined an unclassified assessment of military options in Syria. At the time of the letter, the US military role was limited to humanitarian assistance to the thousands of Syrian refugees, security help to Syria's neighbors who were dealing with a tremendous influx of Syrians and "nonlethal assistance to the opposition."
Dempsey outlined five options: train, advise, and assist the opposition; conduct limited stand-off strikes; establish a no fly zone; establish buffer zones; control chemical weapons.
On the first option - train, advise, and assist the opposition - Dempsey said: "The scale could range from several hundred to several thousand troops with the costs varying accordingly, but estimated at $500 million per year INITIALLY (emphasis mine) About the risks he says:
"Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory cross-border attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties."
On the second option - conduct limited stand-off strikes - would require "hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions." There was also a probability of civilian casualties with this option.