Deeper involvements and higher costs in fight against Islamic State

November 1, 2015
A rainbow is seen as residents inspect a site damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the main field hospital in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus

A rainbow is seen as residents inspect damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the main field hospital in the town of Douma, near Damascus, October 29, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The United States unveiled a new strategy last week in its war against Islamic State. For the first time, American military advisors will be on the ground in Syria, existing advisors in Iraq will be moved closer to the front lines, and American special forces will be sent into direct combat in both locations.

These new moves increase the likelihood that more Americans will die in the fight, much as the nation saw two weeks ago with the death of Delta Force operator Joshua Wheeler in Iraq (others have been wounded.) The changes will also increase the monetary cost of the war against Islamic State. The United States has spent more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $9 million.

It’s easy to stop there, and think only in terms of the price the United States is paying in blood and treasure for the war against Islamic State. But the costs should also be measured in the chaos the war has spawned, and in the additional problems for American foreign policy it has created.

Syria is the locus of the chaos. At one point, the key American goal in Syria was to depose Bashar al-Assad, partly because he was bombing his own people. Those same people now suffer attacks from the air and the ground by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, and Islamic State and its cohorts.

The result? Vast areas of Syria have been reduced to rubble, more than 240,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly 12 million people — half the country’s population — have been driven from their homes. The many players in the conflict seem to be following the Vietnam War-era strategy of “destroying Syria in order to save it.” The some-day reconstruction will be expensive, though it is unclear who will pay that bill.

Meanwhile, the price being paid in the creation of new problems for American foreign policy extends outward from Syria.

In some ways, NATO ally Turkey sees Islamic State as a buffer against Kurdish ambitions. Turkey’s border with Syria is used as a major transit point for foreign fighters heading south, even as Ankara denies turning a blind eye. Islamic State also brokers oil via Turkey onto the black market under similar ambiguous circumstances. Not surprisingly, initial American efforts to enlist Turkey into the Islamic State fight met with little success.

That appeared to change for the better in August 2015, when Washington reached a deal allowing it to fly strike missions against Syria from inside Turkey. However, on the same day as the deal was announced, Turkey began an air campaign against Kurdish groups tied to the only effective fighting force the United States has so far found — the peshmerga. One American official accused Turkey of bait-and-switch, of using the agreement as a “hook” to attack Kurds in northern Iraq. A second official, however, threaded the needle by distinguishing between the leftist, militant Kurdish group bombed (the Kurdish Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK) and the peshmerga proper, stating “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.”

Of course the Kurds aren’t fighting for the United States as much as for their own interests. The Kurds’ vision for their nation extends beyond their confederacy north of Baghdad, itself a danger to whatever hopes the United States may still have for a united Iraq, and into Turkey and Syria. Kurdish help against Islamic State will likely come with a price of its own: Kurdish national ambitions, denied since the end of World War One, will need to be addressed alongside any resolution in Syria. That’s a tall diplomatic order.

In Iraq, the United States’ fight against Islamic State has meant an acceptance of Iranian leadership, special operators, and weapons inside same the nation Americans died “saving” only a few years ago. The growing Iranian influence is closely coupled with American acceptance of Shi’ite militias now in the field, after the Iraqi Army ran away from Islamic State. The growing Iranian influence will be hard to contain throughout the region; the United States, for example, has had to invite Iran to join a new round of Syrian peace talks. That grants Iran a say in the outcome, and Iran supports Assad.

And there is Russia, who, under the loose cover of fighting Islamic State, quickly re-established itself as a military force in the heart of the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine them leaving. Until now, the United States has had a relatively free hand in the area as no one had the military power to seriously challenge an American move. Any significant change in Syria is now subject to a Putin veto, and with that Putin has some new diplomatic bargaining chips to spend elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, Islamic State remains as strong as it has ever been, with American actions serving as its best recruitment tool.

“Defeating Islamic State” is far too simplistic a regional strategy. Increasing American military engagement seems unlikely to lessen the chaos, or ameliorate the foreign policy challenges. It is an expensive escalation with little hope of a payoff. And who can really afford that?

7 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It becomes increasingly more difficult to listen to the west’s propaganda concerning the crisis in many MENA countries, and deluge of “evil Putin” characterizations, when we appear to be the most two-faced worthless dealers with respect to foreign policy.
At times I wonder if there weren’t some secret DARPA project keeping the Dulles brothers artificially alive to implement our foreign policy. That can’t be any stranger than what we are witnessing.

Points for being one of the few op-ed authors to mention the toll in human suffering while we hone our deadly diplomatic skills. None of us here are commenting from an UNHCR tent, living off the charity of aid orginizations.
Or crossing numerous countries and terrain to find a safe place to rest our heads and families, finding food where we can. None of us live like that and the Syrian people don’t deserve that.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

I see a lot of complaining and second-guessing here. What I don’t see is any proposed alternative strategy, with an explanation of why said strategy would work better than the current course.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

“You reap what you sow”
The US has subverted and overthrown non-religious/secular/arab-nationalist/s ocialist/one-party regimes such as the Ba’ath parties in Iraq and Syria, Kalq in Afghanistan, Gaddafi in Libya in favor of religious/warlord/tribal/backwoods groups.
The “strategic tragedy” seems to be that because of the legacy of European colonialism, ambitions of Seven Sisters Oil, and challenges to Israel, they became “the enemy of the West” and often aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
The opportunity for “payback” since the collapse of the Soviet Union has not resulted in any progress in the Middle East, just “opening the Gates of Hell”.
Surely the West had more to offer.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

What a waste of money, chasing black pajamas and dirty Toyota trucks in the desert. Let ISIS come to power. Then you know which buildings to hit with rockets. This is all just another contractor gravy train to milk a job in the sand for 20 years. Cut the contractors out, and we get to the point much quicker.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Apparently we will be handing out shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles to the “moderate” or “not-AS-evil” terrorist-rebels.
There won’t be any peace in that region until we actually invest in stopping hostilities.Introducing more lethal and sophisticated arms will only prolong this suffering.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

looks like we will be handing out shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles to the “moderate” or “not-AS-evil” terrorist-rebels.
There won’t be any peace in that region until we actually invest in stopping hostilities.Introducing more lethal and sophisticated arms will only prolong this suffering. It gets harder to believe we are pursuing anything but the interests of a few well connected parties.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Not our problem.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive