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Should the U.S. “Reoccupy” Iraq and Invade Syria?

An FSA fighter engaged in a firefight in Aleppo

In light of the recent terror attack in Paris by a group of predominantly French/E.U. Muslim citizens, President Obama has faced an increasing chorus of voices calling on him to redeploy troops to the deserts of Iraq to directly combat ISIS, and even intervene militarily in the bloody Syrian Civil War. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently called on the American military to “take out ISIS with overwhelming military force” and Senator Lindsay Graham has called for deploying 20,000 troops to the Middle East to fight ISIS.

Such warlike rhetoric by politicians fits a well-established pattern. Whenever we see a gruesome beheading of an American journalist in Syria or a terror act in a place like Paris, it elicits a visceral reaction that is easily politicized. Frequently, the knee-jerk response to such outrages is to put “boots on the ground” and crush the terrorists with US troops. Such calls for action (instead of “leading from behind” as Obama has been accused of doing by his critics) resonate with some voters who demand action.

But don’t forget that there are soldiers in those “boots” that many politicians are rashly suggesting we deploy to the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Almost 4,500 pairs of those boots came home empty to grieving families in the 2003 to 2011 Iraqi quagmire, which we came perilously close to losing. Recall if you will the dark days of 2004 to 2008, when thousands of Americans were dying and being horribly maimed in hellholes that have become synonymous with bloody insurgencies, like Fallujah, Ramadi, Baquba and the Triangle of Death. At that time, Sunni insurgents were regularly posting online videos of snipers, like the legendary Juba, picking off U.S. troops, of American soldiers being killed in daily IED attacks, and of fanatical fighters engaging in fierce urban combat in booby-trapped alleys that mitigated America’s overly touted technological advantages.

As ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ sent waves of VBIEDs (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices, i.e. car-driven suicide bombers) plunging into U.S. Army checkpoints, convoys, and Command Outposts, tens of thousands of Americans died, lost limbs or suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Polls at the time showed the vast majority of Americans were against the war that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had arrogantly (and mistakenly) promised would be over in a matter of months when we invaded back in 2003. A 2008 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of those who were polled felt that sending troops to Iraq was a mistake. A CBS poll found that 75 percent of Americans did not feel the war in Iraq was worth the cost.

The seemingly senseless quagmire in the desert, which cost three trillion dollars, even began to grate on conservative Republicans, who began to call for “nation building at home instead of in the deserts of Iraq” after the 2008 recession began and the national debt began growing.

By 2007 the ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ insurgents controlled most of the Sunni heartland and Shiite extremists led by Moqtada al Sadr controlled the Shiite south. Many feared that we would have a reprise of the famous picture of the American helicopter evacuating the last Americans from the embassy in Saigon before it fell to the Viet Cong, except with a U.S. Blackhawk evacuating the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

In the end, Iraq was saved by an urgent troop surge of 30,000 reinforcements in 2007, which united with the so-called Anbar Awakening of 103,000 Sunni fighters who had become disgruntled with ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ (also a Sunni group). This combination temporarily put down the insurgency and allowed the war-weary president, George W. Bush, to sign the face saving December 2008 SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Shiite Prime Minister Maliki.

This treaty called for our war-battered troops to withdraw from Iraq by December 2011. It had been a close call and suppressing the massive Sunni insurgency had required calling up tens of thousands of National Guard “weekend warriors” to fight on the frontlines in Iraq and so-called “Stop Loss” extended combat tours for our already exhausted troops. To put it mildly, sending two and half million men and women into combat for longer than usual tours of duty severely strained our military, and we have had military cutbacks since then.

Most importantly, had the 103,000 disgruntled Sunnis of Anbar not abandoned the Sunni insurgency, which was led by ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq,’ and come over to our side to work with the post-surge U.S. force of 168,000 troops, the U.S. would have probably lost Iraq. In other words, it took a combined force of over 270,000 Sunni Anbar fighters and U.S. troops to defeat ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ in just central and western Iraq in 2007.

Fast forward to 2012. The U.S. troops departed in fulfillment of Bush’s 2008 SOFA treaty, which Obama “owned” in order to get the decisive anti-war vote in the 2008 election. History shows Shiite Prime Minister Maliki then turned on our former allies, the Sunni Anbar Awakening militias, and drove them back into the arms of Sunni ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ (which renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq or ISI). Led by the fanatical Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, these Sunni fighters then swarmed into neighboring Syria in that year and spread their power into that country as it descended into a hellacious civil war that (so far) has cost 250,000 people their lives.

Thus was born the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS which has bulldozed the border between Syria and Iraq and become the primary expression of Sunni grievance in this vast region. Today it is firmly entrenched in an area larger than Britain and is the most effective fighting force in Iraq, as best demonstrated by its conquest last summer of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. ISIS has deep pools of support among the Sunnis in Iraq and controls the largest amount of territory in Syria, where it also reflects deep-seated Sunni grievances. One cannot strategically “defeat” ISIS without addressing its underlying basis for widespread support (i.e. the fact that it represents the interest of many Sunnis).

ISIS is also an apocalyptic group that firmly believes in verses in the Koran that call for a cataclysmic battle against an infidel army to the end times. Its leaders dream of one thing in particular, a return of American “infidel” soldiers to the region to fulfill this end-of-times prophecy. They believe a U.S. invasion would galvanize and unite their forces, bring even more Sunnis into their ranks, and allow them to kill thousands of Americans as they did in the much-relished days of 2004 to 2007. Jurgen Todenhofer, a German journalist who visited ISIS’s realm reported for the CNN documentary Blindsided. How ISIS Shook the Worldthat “They want to provoke the Americans into putting boots on the ground. That is their dream.”

ISIS desperately wants to confront the American “supporters of the cross” in an apocalyptic clash of civilizations that will define them as the defenders of Sunni Islam in fulfillment of their fanatical interpretation of Koranic prophesies. Al Baghadi/Caliph Ibrahim warned Obama: “You should know, you defender of the cross, that getting others to fight on your behalf will not do for you in Syria as it will not do for you in Iraq. And soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation — forced to do so, God willing. And the sons of Islam have prepared themselves for this day. So wait, and we will be waiting, too.” After beheading an American in the town of Dabiq, an ISIS terrorist proclaimed on video "Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

In other words, to be “terror group number one,” instead of Al Qaeda, ISIS must fight America on its terrain on its own terms. The dangers of giving into ISIS’s baiting of our emotions are real and could lead to another Operation Iraqi Freedom-style quagmire in two countries this time, instead of just one. Should the U.S. once again repeat the ill-conceived adventurism of Bush Jr. (which got us into the bloody slog that created ISIS out of the secular Socialist Baathist regime that ruled Iraq up until the US invasion) and invade Syria and Iraq, it will play directly into the hands of the ISIS fanatics. They are deeply entrenched and have dug into the towns they dominate with tens of thousands of fanatical fighters. They control an area today that is much larger than their lands in Iraq where they were defeated back in 2007 only with 168,000 U.S surge-reinforced troops and with the crucial help of 103,000 Sunni Anbar Awakening fighters (who it should be stated are no longer with us, they are now primarily with ISIS).

If America involves itself in fighting ISIS in the vast, Britain-sized deserts of Iraq and Syria to appease the irresponsible bloodlust of Americans who have amnesia when it comes to the carnage of the 2003 to 2008 insurgency years, our losses will be much higher than they were in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And such a reflexive, ham-fisted approach toward a skilled enemy whose occupation of the empty deserts of western Iraq and Syria does not threaten our core interests, will necessitate far more troops than the 168,000 deployed in 2007 to fight just in western and central Iraq. Before the 2003 war, Centcom generals pointed out that occupying California-sized Iraq alone necessitated 400,000 troops (at that time this calculation, which was ignored by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, did not include Syria which would have to be invaded as well if we want to destroy ISIS whose headquarters are in that country).

Keeping such a massive occupation army in two countries in perpetuity would cost trillions of dollars and entail a constant sacrifice of lives in an endless counter-insurgency meat-grinder. One could not of course withdraw this massive occupation force once it was in place. As was seen with our so-called “cutting and running” in 2011, the determined enemy simply resurfaces when we leave. This constant war footing would strain our troops and resources far more than it did during the 2007 troop surge. And of course the small number of 10,000 or 20,000 troops proposed by Senator Graham would be woefully insufficient for the task based on the example of the necessity of a surge of 30,000 reinforcement troops to save the large army we already had in Iraq in 2007 from defeat.

It should also be clearly stated that, should we permanently occupy these vast countries (and of course keep thousands of troops fighting in Afghanistan to prevent the return of the Taliban), we would inadvertently be involving ourselves in a centuries-old sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites on behalf of Assad’s criminal Alawite-Shiite regime (which is supported by Hezbollah and Iran). It will be recalled this is the very Assad regime that “crossed the red line” set by Obama and used chemical and barrel bombs to massacre civilians in 2012 (ironically, many Republicans called for us to attack Assad back then, which would mean we would now be fighting ISIS and its enemy the Assad regime had we heeded their rash calls to action). Should we go to war with ISIS we will also be supporting the Iranian-backed Shiite regime in Iraq which has disenfranchised our former Sunni allies, the Anbar Awakening militias, since we left.

Reflexively deploying “boots” (i.e. men and women who will be separated from their loved ones and be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country) to fight and die in remote desert towns like Tal Afar may initially make some of us feel good. It may be gratifying for many to deploy our army to avenge the beheading of journalist James Foley and recent killings in France (by French citizens of Muslim descent who were living in Paris, France, not ISIS’s Middle Eastern “Caliphate”). But the fleeting satisfaction of seeing U.S. troops re-take Fallujah, street by deadly street, and storm the IED-laced ISIS capital of Raqqa will last only until the flag-draped caskets once again start streaming back in the thousands to grieving families across America. For, make no mistake about it, as in Vietnam where we lost 58,000 Americans to a resourceful enemy fighting on his own turf, the enemy in Iraq and Syria has what the military calls a “vote” (i.e. they get to kill our troops too, the killing is not one way). Just ask the legendary Iraqi sniper Juba of Baghdad, who filmed his gruesome kill shots of dozens of American troops, or the Sunni insurgent mastermind Zarqawi who turned Fallujah into a charnel pit of the sort the U.S. had not seen since the Battle of Hue in Vietnam.

Such an ill-conceived and open ended U.S. occupation of Iraq and Syria, with objectives that are not clearly defined (“crushing ISIS” is a simplistic explanation for war objectives that actually call for involvement in a complex, centuries-long sectarian battle in the region that involves Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia in a proxy war) will lead to a steady blood-drip of American lives that will quickly lose domestic support. This is what happened in the first, more limited, war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 which became highly unpopular and helped make Bush the most unpopular president since Nixon (he had a 28 percent approval rating by the end of his second term). In 2003, Americans were prepared for a quick “Shock and Awe” invasion, but not for the subsequent long, drawn-out, bloody occupation that devolved into a civil war that killed tens of thousands (with our troops caught in the middle) and two separate anti-American insurgencies.

Obama himself eloquently summed up the rationale of not re-occupying Iraq recently at the G-20 Conference in Antalya, Turkey. There he resisted the urge to act rashly and gain political points by responding militarily in the Middle Eastern deserts to the tragedy in the streets of Paris. Instead, he laid out his rationale for returning to the more cautious policies of George Bush Sr. (who wisely resisted the urge to occupy Iraq after the repulse of Hussein from Kuwait in 1991). Said Obama:

There have been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.…that would be a mistake -- not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is, if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface -- unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.

And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else -- in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?

Obama’s cautiousness was echoed by former CIA head and Secretary of Defense under Bush, Robert Gates (who it will be recalled led the surge that saved Iraq in 2007). It was Gates who told graduates at West Point “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

As the experienced Gates implied, a return to America’s pre-Bush Jr. policy of restraint in the Middle East, instead of anomalous and self-defeating aggression, serves the interest of America which has no core interests in the barren deserts of western Iraq or eastern Syria (Iraq’s oil lies in Kurdistan which Obama protected with bombings in August 2014 and in the Shiite south. Syria has very little oil production by comparison and its strategic western coast and capital are in the hands of the government). Even President Ronald Reagan had the wisdom to withdraw from Lebanon (a country where we similarly did not have vital stakes despite the rise of Iranian-backed Hezbollah there) after the loss of 299 Marines in a Hezbollah terror bombing of our barracks in 1983.

It can be argued that rashly sending our troops to fight in what is essentially a centuries old civil war in Iraq and Syria is more about expressing our new obsession with militarism and embrace of military options as the primary response to all foreign challenges than a sound strategic response to sleeper cells in places like Paris. In his recent book The New American Militarism. How America has Become Seduced by War, Vietnam veteran and historian Andrew Bacevich writes: “Today, as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power…. To state the matter bluntly, Americans in our own time have fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force.”

Bacevich’s point is aptly illustrated by the fact that, despite the recent horrors stemming from the unpopular war in Iraq, a recent poll shows that 62 percent of Americans favor sending troops back to the Middle East to fight what is essentially the same foe that killed 4,500 troops and almost defeated us from 2003 to 2007. The reality is that the successful overthrow of the brittle regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 seems to have, as Bacevich suggests, led us to have outsized expectations about how we can reshape foreign societies with tanks and bluntly deal with sleeper cell terror threats via purely military means. But, as the loss of thousands of American lives in an inconclusive war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 shows, there is only so much that “boots on the ground” can achieve in distant places like the sectarian-riven deserts of the Middle East. To reoccupy Iraq and also invade Syria in the name of fighting the terroristic manifestation of Sunni extremism known as ISIS would be a strategic blunder on the scale of Operation Iraqi Freedom and would have similarly unknown ripple effects that could once again lead to greater fanaticism. This last point was eloquently made by Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, who said, “I think the last war in Iraq actually made it more chaotic and made us less safe”.

A cautious policy of containing the ISIS group in their remote desert fastness via a persistent air campaign known as Operation Inherent Resolve and assisting local forces in methodically pushing them back (as has successfully been done recently at Kobane, Tel Abyad, Sinjar, Hasaka and Tikrit) is not only strategically sound, but saves American lives.

For a history of how the Bush invasion of Iraq created ISIS see this HNN article by Professor Williams.