Thursday, September 11, 2014

On to Syria - but what happens next?

Last night President Obama took to the airwaves to address the nation and discuss the US response to the terrorist group ISIS. Reading the transcript of the speech, it struck me that one of the things he sought to do was to place future action against ISIS in the context of the broader war on terror,  reminding Americans of recent victories in the fight against Al-Queda in Somalia and Yemen, while at the same time highlighting his winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This was a sensible tone to strike in a nation weary of war and leery of new conflicts abroad. But the President quickly shifted from recent accomplishments to the potentially explosive nature of the threat posed by ISIS, citing its potential to spread death and chaos across the Middle East and beyond.

Then he laid out a plan to confront the ISIS threat that is dependent on a number of things which may realistically be beyond the control of Mr. Obama, including the effectiveness of the Iraqi Army to conduct large-scale ground operations and the willingness of Congress to approve an expedited request for $500 million to train Syrian opposition fighters. In fact, the entire enterprise is riddled with question marks and possible outcomes that could quite possibly plunge the US into another major war in the Middle East, with no foreseeable means of exit. But as the President points out in his remarks, in reality we have little choice but to confront ISIS.

As the US expands its role in the Middle East to include targeting of ISIS in Syrian territory, though, a whole new set of questions arise -  to what degree will this campaign benefit Bashar Al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War? How long will the coalition assembled by the President last? What happens if (god forbid) a US plane and its crew are shot down over Syria?

I'm sure there are many people far more expert than I who are pondering these very same questions tonight, but they are questions that that the American public should be asking as well. As President Obama rightly said, ISIS represents a major threat to both the Middle East and the West, but as we begin to write this next chapter in the history of the region and US involvement within it, we should keep in mind that wars in this part of the world, and the consequences that result, often have a tendency to spiral out of control in dangerous and unexpected ways.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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