Fact: America Has Been Intervening in Syria for Years

A peshmerga soldier during building assault training at Bnaslawa, Iraq. DVIDSHUB/Public domain

The Syrian Civil War has been steadily becoming a great-power conflict since 2014.

The Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack and the American military response have caused analysts, commentators and politicians to scrutinize President Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” (in)decision in 2013. Critics, including current president Donald Trump, assert that the failure to follow through on the threat of punishment after the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013 emboldened Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to continue employing his deadly unconventional weapons indiscriminately against enemies of the state and innocent civilians.

Obama would later say he was “proud” of his decision not to involve his country in what has become arguably the deadliest war of the last few years. Critics of his inaction minced no words, with even consistent Obama supporters referring to the episode as the president’s “worst mistake.” With supporters like that, who needs detractors?

There are points to acknowledge as well as to dispute with all sides of the argument. But the real issue with the focus on Obama’s “red line” debacle is that it ignores the more crucial and consequential decision made later in his presidency with regard to the United States’ policy in the Middle East. One year after electing not to intervene in Syria, America’s forty-fourth president found reason to do just that.

Ironically, America’s latest major military operation did not begin in Syria. The focus of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military’s code name for the intervention, was initially placed on Iraq. The United States had been out of Iraq for barely three years at that point, but with ISIL seemingly running roughshod over Iraq and the atrocities of the group on full display on social media, pressure mounted on Washington and other major powers to act to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and prevent Iraq from descending into chaos (again). After initially reinforcing the residual forces remaining in-country, the United States returned to war in Iraq on August 8, 2014, commencing a campaign, dominated by air and special operations, targeting the Islamic State.

Around the time the United States re-engaged in combat in Iraq, it also began surveillance missions over Syria. Prior to then, American involvement in Syria had consisted of clandestine support for specific opposition forces battling the Assad regime and limited special operations. With ISIL wreaking havoc in Syria in addition to Iraq, Inherent Resolve expanded to target the militant group in that country as well. The first strikes in Syria took place on September 22, adding yet another country to what was already a long list of places in which the United States is involved militarily.

If baseball legend Yogi Berra chimed in on the matter, he would probably say, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” While Obama was, by and large, true to his word in not deploying ground forces in large numbers, a significant amount of air power was committed to the operation, including the redeployment of an aircraft-carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. And no, the limited nature of the campaign has not made it a cheap war. While near-universal derision of ISIL contributed to initial positive feedback to the strikes, criticism eventually mounted.

Skeptics of Inherent Resolve cited the risks of becoming involved in another Middle Eastern quagmire, one that also risks great-power confrontation. Others, some of whom might otherwise endorse the operation, criticized the administration for enforcing strict rules of engagement perceived as hamstringing efforts at stopping ISIL. This became a point of contention during the 2016 presidential campaign, with then-candidate Trump boasting he would turn the U.S. military loose and “bomb the shit out of ’em.” Not to be outdone, Republican rival Ted Cruz threatened to “carpet bomb” ISIL. All in favor of a more aggressive approach to fighting ISIL probably felt that loosening the rules of engagement in Afghanistan last month was a good start.