According to U.S. Today, President Barack Obama said at least 16 times there would be no boots on the ground in Syria – that is, before he put 50 of them down in 2015.
Even that was a tepid response to the rapid gains of the Islamic State, then still only a stone’s throw from Baghdad in the Euphrates River valley. Obama’s foreign policy was driven by a “Don’t do stupid shit” mantra – a belief that American power was limited, that military power could only accomplish so much, and that both should be used sparingly to manage conflicts until locals finished them on America’s behalf.
But Donald Trump did not come to power on a platform of measured thinking and thoughtful debate. His supporters demand action for action’s sake. Now, in a revised anti-Islamic State strategy, he seems about to oblige them:
A new military strategy to meet President Donald Trump’s demand to “obliterate” the Islamic State group is likely to deepen U.S. military involvement in Syria, possibly with more ground troops, even as the current U.S. approach in Iraq appears to be working and will require fewer changes.
The article talks of options: increased heavy arms to Kurdish forces (while trying to calm Turkish nerves opposed to such support), use of American Apache helicopters for ground support, and more Special Forces to stiffen local forces in both Iraq and Syria as they move on the Islamic State’s final strongholds.
This is not the same as a mass invasion of Syria, nor does it appear anything like the Iraq and Afghan surges of 2006-07 and 2009-12. Instead, it’s a slightly more aggressive refinement of the Obama era.
Despite Trump’s bluster, even he is not ready to roll into a civil war where America has little to gain and much to lose. Any town liberated by U.S. troops, whether that is Islamic State or Assad-held, becomes a burden to an American military that has already spent 16 years fighting the War on Terror.
Instead, Trump is likely to bombard the airwaves with braggadocio whenever U.S. forces support a victorious battle. That will echo within the conservative news media as a sign the U.S. is strong again – despite not having substantially changed Obama-era military policy.
Yet this is also posturing for the coming end of the Syrian civil war, which has almost entirely lost its usefulness for all the powers that saw it as a useful proxy battleground. Up until now, America has been excluded from meaningful peace talks; to gain a spot at the peace table and a say in Syria’s almost certainly fractured future, the United States must spill someone’s blood. Islamic State fighters are happy enough to die; the Americans are content to oblige them, gaining some influence in a country where they very recently had none.