Rex Tillerson is out of his depth

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the United States would stay in Iraq to fight Islamic State (IS, sometimes referred to as ISIS or ISIL) whether the Iraqi government authorizes the troop presence or not.

Tillerson testified with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee amid scrutiny over the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month.

Sen. Tom Udall asked, “If U.S. forces are told to leave, will we depart Iraq or will we stay uninvited as our forces are doing in Syria, and under what legal authority will they remain?”

Tillerson replied, “We will remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated and we are confident that ISIS has been defeated.”

The implication that the U.S. would keep its military in Iraq despite being unwanted is not only the definition of imperialism, but it would be the biggest foreign policy blunder since the 2003 invasion.

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PMU celebrates a victor over IS (Wikimedia Commons photo)

Iraqi militias already weary of U.S. presence

Tillerson’s position is ironic considering he called for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to “go home” last week. “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control,” he said.

In Baghdad, the Iranian influence is noticeable. In the square where U.S. soldiers in 2003 famously removed a statue of Saddam Hussein, hoisted an American flag, and then quickly took it down, a billboard advertises Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with photos of Khomeinei and Khamenei.

At the moment, the Iraqi government welcomes both U.S. and Iranian forces and has heavily depended on both to fight IS. But should the U.S. stay as a foreign occupier after being told to leave, the fight against IS would expand to include defending itself against local militias fighting what they consider an invading force.

This month a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb identified as an explosively formed penetrator (EFP). This type of bomb is not an improvised explosive device (IED) as it requires considerable manufacturing effort to create.

EFPs were used to kill many American service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn and are linked to Iran. Notably, no evidence of IS use of EFPs has been recorded.

The idea that Shiite militias in Iraq would be targeting U.S. forces again is not unsound. In March, a PMU commander threatened U.S. troops should they stay after IS is gone.

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A U.S. Marine fires an M777-A2 Howitzer in Syria, June 1, 2017 (DoD photo)

U.S. unilateralism in Syria untenable 

Resistance to the U.S. presence by militias also fighting IS is not contained only to Iraq. In Syria, Free Syrian Army fighters surrounded a small detachment of U.S. special operations forces last winter and chanted “Pigs! Crusaders!”

Since then, U.S. special operations bases have been limited to Kurdish-controlled areas and their locations closely guarded secrets (until Turkey announced the location of 10 bases this year).

Depending on the protection of non-state actors while ignoring the wishes of the host nation’s government — but not actively fighting them — has become the norm in Syria, but obviously is not the ideal operating environment.

The precarious position of U.S. troops in Syria was highlighted recently. In September, U.S. troops were forced to abandon a small base in the Syrian desert and withdraw closer to the Iraqi border.

The U.S. position in Syria post-IS is currently untenable. Turkey continues to consider the YPG, a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, a terrorist organization and existential threat. As the IS buffer diminishes, Russia and Iran-backed fighters grow bolder in opposing U.S. forces. Last month, Russia threatened to bomb U.S. troops.

Diplomat needed

That Tillerson would suggest he is comfortable with the same situation in Iraq shows how out of his depth he is in the position to which he was appointed. On the Middle East, Tillerson recently admitted that he was lost. “Maybe we leave it to the next generation to try. I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat,” he admitted.

It should go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should probably be a diplomat. It should also go without saying that the top U.S. diplomat should not endorse imperialism as viable foreign policy.

Since President Trump was elected, a lot of things that used to go without saying need saying.

Trump’s War in Syria: What You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

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A Tomahawk missile is launched from a Navy Cruiser in the Persian Gulf (U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons photo)

President Trump announced Thursday night that the United States conducted a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government earlier this week.

The U.S. Navy launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles targeting aircraft at al-Sharyat airbase in Homs province from destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian forces are stationed on the base, but U.S. officials said they used established deconfliction channels to notify them beforehand.

Cruise missiles have a range of 1,000 miles and typically carry a 1,000 lb. warhead. A staple of U.S. military unmanned strike capability, cruise missiles have been used since the 1991 Gulf War. They were utilized by former President Bill Clinton who famously used them to strike at al-Qaida in Afghanistan in Sudan prior to the attack on September 11th, 2001.

Most recently, cruise missiles were used to attack targets in Yemen after Houthi rebels launched missiles at U.S. Navy ships supporting the Saudi-led war there.

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Aftermath of an air strike in Sana’a, Yemen (Ibrahem Qasim/Wikimedia Commons photo)

The missile strike in Syria was launched at roughly 8:40 PM Eastern time or 4:40 AM local time. It came hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced “steps are underway” to build an international coalition to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

The announcement marked a major shift in U.S. policy in Syria, where the U.S. has spent two and a half years combatting Islamic State (IS, also know as ISIS or ISIL), but has not struck Syrian government targets (on purpose—in September Syrian troops were killed in a U.S. airstrike it deemed “unintentional”).

Is the U.S. going to war in Syria?

The U.S. has been at war in Syria since September, 2014 when it conducted its first airstrikes against IS in response to the videoed and widely-seen assassinations of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Thursday’s missile strike represents and expansion and escalation of the war, authorized under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force to target al-Qaida.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria (AFP/Getty photo)

If Trump continues to strike Syrian government targets, he will need a new Congressional authorization. The War Powers Act of 1973 limits military force to 60 days without Congressional approval.

However, former President Barack Obama continued military operations in Libya far past the 60 day limit by claiming “operations did not involve sustained fighting.”

Will the U.S. send ground troops?

Ground troops, typically defined as non-Special Operations Forces (SOF) in country, have already been in Syria for a month. U.S. Army Rangers (highly-trained shock troops originally intended to seize airfields) and a Marine artillery unit were deployed to Northeast Syria to support continuing operations against IS near Raqqa.

These forces combined with existing SOF such as Navy SEALs and Army CAG (also known as Delta Force) total almost 1000 American military personnel currently in Syria.

The U.S. has possibly two military bases already established in Syria. One at Rmeilan airfield and another near Ain Eissa, both in Kurdish-controlled areas.

What would an American-Led Operation to Remove Assad Look Like?

It is difficult to predict what regime change might look like or if it will even happen. We can compare the last three successful government-toppling actions in the greater Middle East for context, though.

In 2001, the U.S. sent a small contingent of C.I.A. operatives, Special Operations Forces including Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs, and Army Rangers to Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government in Kabul while simultaneously hunting al-Qaida.

With the support of the Northern Alliance, local forces already fighting the Taliban, Kabul was captured in roughly a month, but al-Qaida leadership slipped through the U.S.’s fingers.

Today, the U.S. is still hunting al-Qaida and fighting the Taliban for control of territory in Afghanistan.

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with 150,000 troops in a multinational coalition after a heavy bombing campaign striking government targets in Baghdad and military bases throughout the country.

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U.S. tanks in Baghdad, 2003 (Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons photo)

Baghdad fell in just months and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured within the year.

U.S. troops completely withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014. Today, there are over 5,000 troops supporting the operation to defeat an insurgent group created in the chaos after the 2003 invasion.

In contrast to the colossal Iraq invasion, in 2011 the United States supported a NATO air operation to depose Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. The U.S. provided support to European airstrikes protecting rebels and targeting the Libyan government.

Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces in 7 months. Today, Libya continues to fight a multi-factional civil war. U.S. bombers continued to conduct airstrikes in Libya this year.

Whatever may come, Thursday’s events did not mark the beginning of an American war. The U.S. has been at war toppling multiple governments in the Middle East for nearly 16 years. Killing a Middle Eastern head of state and destroying the government of that country has become the specialty of the U.S. this century. Repairing what it has broken has proven challenging and burdensome.