America is once again at war in the Middle East, dropping bombs and inserting “advisers” on the ground in two countries. Americans seem supportive of the stated mission – destroying one division of the cross border insurgency known as ISIS – but they will increasingly grow tired of the actual mission: regime change in Syria. Here are five indications that Obama’s “counter-terrorism operation” is actually a nation-building war.
1. The U.S. End Game: When Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asked Secretary of Defense Hagel what the “end-game” was in Syria, Sec. Hagel responded: “Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule… the end-state in Syria… is a free Syria, where men and women and their families have rights to choose, and have rights to choose their own leaders and their own futures.” In other words, the end game is a liberal democratic utopia.
2. The U.S. Military Strategy: The New York Times in its article on the air strikes in Syria last night notes the administration’s “worry” that the air strikes on the ISIS rebels would help the Assad regime, but no matter, an administration official said, “We don’t plan to make it easy for Assad to reclaim territory.” The Times notes that he “declined to say” how the U.S. would accomplish this secondary mission. The AP has even implied that the U.S. has considered preemptively bombing Assad “to avoid unintentionally strengthening the Syrian government.”
3. Syrian Government Considers It War: The Syrian government has said for months that “any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression.”A position that it quickly repeated following Obama’s speech two weeks ago, arguing that the U.S. would need Syria’s approval to bomb ISIS targets. It should be pointed out that this is no idle threat. The Syrian government has the weapons capability to shoot down American bombers.
4. Obama would “overthrow” Assad: The U.S. has also considered the implications of its war in Syria. President Obama told advisors that, if Syria fired on U.S. planes, he “would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system.” He continued on to say that “such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow.”
5. Weapons to Syrian Opposition: Congress just approved President Obama’s request to indefinitely provide an unquantified amount of weapons, training, and other assistance to anti-Assad rebels, many of whom, as the former-Ambassador to Syria noted in testimony last week, are allied with al-Qaeda (perhaps one reason why the U.S. is also bombing them in Syria). In other words, we are training a proxy army to fight Assad. How is that not a war?
There are other practical considerations that I have pointed out before, but the bottom line is this: after the administration’s failure to rally support for bombing Assad last year, the mission really didn’t change – just the initial targets. It seems clear that the Pentagon figured that as soon as bombs start dropping, the U.S. will be committed and “own” the outcome of the civil war. With the government committed to an “Assad-must-go” policy, and since air strikes won’t “destroy” ISIS (as we have already seen in Iraq), it is only time before the bombs follow the policy.