It is by now a near cliché in defense-watcher circles to talk about the common peril of "mission creep” in military interventions. Naturally, that’s not translated to America avoiding this tendency – of gradually shifting objectives during the course military missions, until stuck in unplanned long-term quagmires – very much at all. Nevertheless, as if it wasn’t ridiculously obvious enough, the Biden Administration’s Sunday night bombings of allegedly Iranian-backed militia sites in Syria and Iraq illustrate that what’s been unfolding on those adventures is more mission-manufacture than creep.
Almost all mainstream media articles or reports describe the latest strikes as retaliatory responses to rocket or drone strikes on US military bases in one or both countries, and refer to the alleged Iraqi or Syrian culprits as "Iranian-backed." Seriously, like every time. In so doing, the establishment press uncritically – and one suspects, in many cases, willfully – accepts the US Government’s line and denies any agency (and legitimacy, grievances, or outright identity) to the numerous, diverse, and complex Iraqi and Syrian resistance groups actually doing the shooting. Most reporting on such bombings also offers the impression that these missions – if not the world – began yesterday, omitting almost all backstory, context, or nuance.
The absence of these three critical elements of any effective analysis is, of course, rather convenient for a Washington establishment which would otherwise have its initial illegalities, dissembling justifications, senseless strategies, and inherent indecencies in two wars they’ve championed comprehensively exposed. Overall, it’s the utter ignorance – willful or otherwise – currently characterizing America’s Iraq and Syria policies that’s truly striking. More troubling, though, is the public apathy enabling the nefarious pundit-politician nexus to continue the killing – this, perhaps befitting a nation finally gone mad on the narcotic of responsibility-free forever wars.
Anatomy of Absurdity
Biden’s two bombing operations against allegedly Iranian-backed Iraqi and Syrian militias – this week and back in February – were far more farcical than even most critics construe. In fact, the US military’s muddled missions in both countries carry Kafkaesque-characteristics, on both their supposed strategic and moral merits. Let’s begin with the (non-) "strategies" of these (non-) "missions."
The current official mission statement of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – initiated in October 2014 "to formalize ongoing military actions against the rising threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria" – reads:
"In conjunction with partner forces Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) defeats ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and sets conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability."
Only (unless one interprets "increase regional stability" as an absurdly blank check), that mission statement – in its classically anodyne and lifeless military-speak – hardly describes, in any detail, what America’s soldiers are, and have, been up to on both sides of the colonial-relic Iraq-Syria border. Sequence matters in the dishonest shell games that define these interventions. Consider, then, just a brief timeline of these bewildering missions, their shifting justifications, and the inherent inconsistencies and contradictions characterizing the U.S. military’s nearly two decades in the area:
- October 2002: By a bipartisan landslide, Congress passes an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) allowing the president to "use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" – essentially a green light to do a regime change on ole Saddam Hussein.
- March 2003: The US invades Iraq under false pretenses – as Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction or collude with Al Qaeda.
- December 2011: After more than eight years of grueling insurgency, President Obama withdraws US troops from Iraq.
- Summer 2014: After the U.S.-installed and backed Shia-chauvinist corrupt government alienates the Sunni population and accelerates the rise of ISIS, Obama initiates airstrikes and deploys ground troops back into Iraq.
- September 22, 2014: The US begins bombing ISIS targets in Syria.
- Late 2015: US ground troops start entering Syria.
- September 2016: In a series of 37 airstrikes, the US claimed it accidentally – though the Assad regime and Russian government dispute the intentionality – killed between 50 and 60 Syrian soldiers.
- April 2017: President Trump orders attacks on not ISIS, but Syrian government forces, in retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack on a rebel-held city.
- December 2017: The Iraqi Government announces the defeat of ISIS after recapturing of the group’s last territorial foothold in the country – US troops do not withdraw.
- January 2018: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson states that US forces will remain in Syria to pressure not just ISIS, but Bashar al-Assad and "Iranian influence."
- February 2018: Seemingly contradicting the secretary of state, General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), testifies before Congress stating that "countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria."
- February 2018: US Special Forces call in airstrikes on advancing pro-Assad regime forces, killing scores, including some 100 Russian mercenaries.
- April 2018: US, U.K., and French forces again strike Syrian government targets – this time at multiple sites – for another alleged Assad chemical attack.
- March 2019: ISIS’s last Syrian territorial stronghold falls to joint U.S.-Kurdish militia forces – yet again, US troops do not withdraw.
- October 2019: President Trump orders US troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria – where they had been supporting its Kurdish militia allies.
- January 2020: Trump announces he kept US troops in Syria because he decided to "keep the oil."
- August 2020: Four American troops sustain minor injuries when Russian and US military vehicles collide in northeastern Syria.
The whole circus constitutes and catalyzes a mad cycle of conflict-perpetuating escalation – even as otherwise serious politicians and pundits pretend the tit-for-tat rhythm is requisite and rational. Case in point, just a day after the latest US strikes in Syria and Iraq, more rockets hit an American military base in eastern Syria, "prompting" – per CNN’s uncritical explanatory verbiage – "US forces to return fire." And on we go, deeper down a salacious Syria-spiral – where it stops, literally no one knows. That Monday retaliation, mind you, occurred at an oil field site that US forces call “Green Village” in the larger security zone where perhaps 900 American troops – the Pentagon typically won’t admit the exact number – operate.
That’s instructive, since too many forget that the Obama-instigated intervention in Syria started out as an ostensibly anti-ISIS endeavor, morphed into a vaguely Kurdish-minority enclave-assurance mission (which promptly folded in the face of a 2019 (oops, NATO-allied) Turkish invasion, until tycoon-in-chief Trump turned it into an oil fields – meager-amounts, at that – protection racket. One doubts that many American mothers are jazzed up about the prospect of sacrificing their sons on the altar of Syria’s paltry petroleum industry. Naturally, nearly all of these more-manufactured-than-creeping mission-justifications constitute polite propaganda for an apathetic and ill-informed public consumption – essentially thin smokescreens for the real reasoning that’s regularly confessed by the serious stewards of endless war: “containing” and "countering” Iran.
Every single time the US military bombs a militia-site in Syria or Iraq, some Defense Department or administration spokesperson never fails to justify the strike as an act of "self defense." And neither the media nor most politicians bother bat an eye at such laughable linguistic gymnastics. After all, how can "protecting" an armed American presence in sovereign countries some 6,000 miles from Washington D.C., conducted absent the consent of either Congress or the local governments, count as defensive? Illustratively, Joe Biden – mister competence-and-ethics-are-back, himself – sought no congressional approval before the strikes; then, the very Iraqi government US troops ostensibly support expressed outrage, condemning the bombing as as a "blatant" violation of national sovereignty that violated international conventions.
Besides, even if Iran was directing all these attacks – a dubious enough assertion – its best rockets can’t reach Rhode Island, and even Tehran’s top-tier armed drones barely range Riyadh. The simplest and surest way to safeguard US service-members is to ship them home. That’d leave Tehran to contest the tortured region with a U.S.-allied cynical pack of partners – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE – which, combined, have around three-times Iran’s GDP, and almost eight-times its military spending.
Uncle Sam could then safely survey the scene from afar, and metaphorically pantomime my own uncle’s old trick – holding my forehead at bay with the palm of his outstretched arm as my own too-tiny fist-clenched appendages swung furiously but futilely towards his torso. Ah, the almost childlike simplicity of sound strategies that are rarely even considered in America’s Emerald City. Instead, Washington’s policymakers park America’s increasingly confused troopers squarely within range of even the militiamen’s most errant and unreliable of rockets – rendering the nation’s sons and daughters vulnerable "tripwires,” whose needless deaths could very well kick-off an unnecessary, but very real regional combat.
The Tehran Canard
No one much mentions this, but the fact is that the US military presence in Syria and Iraq – by its very existence – all but ensures heightened tensions with Tehran, and seriously jeopardizes President Biden’s stated desire to resurrect the Obama-negotiated Iran Nuclear Deal, that Trump scuttled during his administration. Not that the establishment’s bipartisan hawks see it that way. In fact, it is they who build up a ten-foot-tall Iran in the public imagination, yet in reality Tehran sees its actions – not altogether inaccurately – as the necessarily defensive ones, especially against a regionally-meddling superpower that’s sought to sabotage Iran’s post-revolutionary regime for 40 odd years. Regardless of how one feels about Iran’s leadership or political system, Tehran has a point.
Furthermore, those allegedly Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are hardly the pure proxies of Tehran that they’re made out to be. The country’s paramilitary melange is complex, voluminous, diverse, divided, and often deeply embedded in Iraqi politics and society. Some, like the Badr Organization’s militiamen, have been around since 1982, when they fled to Iran and fought against Saddam’s forces – their own countrymen – during the Iran-Iraq War. Most others were absolutely crucial in the initial checking of the ISIS onslaught heading towards Baghdad in 2014-15, and are considered heroes for their efforts by many Iraqis.
But again, there’s precious little knowledge – or much care to know – of this among American citizens, or even many policymakers, allowing Washington’s self-styled Realpolitik inertial irrationals to do their indefinite worst. That a Democratic president – whom much of the media immediately anointed an ostensibly "transformative" corrective to Donald Trump – would follow his announced Afghan War withdrawal with more mindless bombing in Iraq and Syria…well it’s a gut-punch to hopes for a meaningful pivot to peace.
Adulated & Abandoned Rocket Magnets
Especially since 9/11, most citizens have professed profound adoration for America’s troopers. Only the truth is that’s primarily posture – pretended-patriot virtue-signaling of the indulgent and insecure variety. An even dirtier secret is most Americans haven’t the faintest idea what their borderline fetishized soldiers are up to – nor why, where, or in what numbers. Few even care. Unless, that is, they happen to be part of a shrinking martial class, marry into that increasingly inherited “family business,” or just maybe live around one of the typically far-flung forgotten garrison towns outside one of the US military’s usually isolated bases.
Coastal city-dwellers and affluent suburbanites scantly see soldiers outside occasional Dallas Airport layovers, holiday parades, or fawning sporting event ceremonies. For example, I grew up just two miles from the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island, but some 330 miles from the nearest base housing an active US Army combat brigade. For many such-situated citizens, military life lives countless miles away in both distance and the imagination – a foreign tribe charged with foreign wars fought in We the People’s name.
So forgive any potential petulance in my being plain disgusted by all the persistent pageantry – and personal-patting – thrown troopers’ and veterans’ way in the wild world of America in our Age of Endless War. Scant citizens seriously believe the ongoing missions in Iraq, Syria, or innumerable elsewheres, are actually important. After all, it’s not as though they’re lining up at the ever-struggling recruiting sergeants’s station doors. Nor are all that many hitting the streets to actively stop the still slow-boiling wars that a select stratum of soldiers – and way more machines, mercenaries, and proxies – are still waging.
In other words, though veterans are hardly a monolith nor speak with a single voice, please spare us the phony-praise and dishonest thanks – at least until a majority of Americans demand an end to absurd and impossible adventures like Iraq and Syria; these being (for most) undetectable map-spots where the citizenry has sentenced them to serve as bait – little more than "rocket magnets” – to fuel missions that can’t be won, and benefit only a blood money-fueled war industry.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen