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With the current upheaval in the Levant due to the instability of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Iraq, due in equal parts to the current Syrian Civil Warand the prevalence of ISIS in the region, modern events should be put into perspective by placing them in the context of the legacy of the Iraq War to reach a point of further understanding of the interactions of the present within the legacy of the past. The Iraq War has proven to be a critical point within the region, contributing to an instability predicted today to be long-term within Iraq proper, which in turn has served as an incubator for the radical Islamic State organization that threatens not just a war-torn Syria, but also the region at large, from Turkey to Libya, as it gathers more supporters.
Not only has the war affected the region itself, but also how foreign powers interact politically with its constituents. A bad taste still remains in the mouths of local powers from the bitterly fought Iraq War, both on the intellectual and military fronts, forcing international powers-that-be to tread lightly. As a result, following the Iraq War, the Obama Administration within the United States, as well as the nation’s allies abroad, have been heavily influenced to stray from a “boots on the ground” approach to military intervention in the Middle East, preferring the use of “air power”, from no-fly zones to airstrikes, to influence and shape the region politically.
The initiation of the war that has been one of the largest political influences in the first part of the 21st century in the Levant is a highly debated one, largely driven by a U.S. Intelligence claim of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, within Iraq being hidden by the Ba’athist Regime of Saddam Hussein. Invaded in 2003 by a United States-dominant coalitionof international forces, the Iraq War quickly blossomed into the war American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, feared would turn into “a long, hard slog” in a memoranda sent to top officials before the invasion (Loyola).
With progress bogged down due to civil in-fighting amongst major factions within the country following the invasion phase of the Iraq War, an alternative was needed to wind down the violence of the war as well as transfer power to an Iraqi Government stable enough to maintain and defend itself from threats of Ba’athist Iran from outside the country and radical Shi’a militant groups within the country. The Surge, a radically changed policy implemented by the Bush Administration and its allies in 2007, has become knownprovided this desperately needed alternative and developed into one of the most unexpectedly successful military campaigns of the modern era, turning back the high tide of civil unrest and violence that burgeoned a year before in 2006 (Flynn).
The pipe dream of an international coalition bogged down in the Iraqi desert, a surge of both troops and ideas, as General Petraeus put it, seemed to be the exact opposite of what was needed to end the already long and slowly changing conflict (Pryer).In his article “How to Reverse a Failed Policy”, in the National Interest, Dr. Ray Takeyh discusses how the policy shaped the country in writing, “The future of Iraq remains uncertain.However, there is no doubt that a changein strategy salvaged the American enterpriseand saved Iraq from collapsing furtherinto a horrific civil conflict, with Americacaught in the conflagration (Takeyh).” In noting the Surge’s benefits in the international campaign in the country, it should also be noted that its end result was a full withdraw of foreign troops within the newly formed Republic of Iraq by December of 2011, leading to a lower level of stability within the nation, and contributing to the conditions that now allow the Islamic State to militarily control parts of the country.
“The larger legacy of Iraq was that the U.S. military cannot shape outcomes (Landler).” Following an international withdraw from Iraq, due in part to a disenfranchisement with a war famously declared to be a “mission accomplished” years before, the popular opinions in the main military powers influencing the region were in consensus that they did not want another commitment of troops. A popular belief within these powers was that even with such a commitment, little progress would be achieved, a sentiment voiced in Landler’s article published in the New York Times days after the final American withdraw from Iraq. With the withdraw coinciding with the Arab Springuprisings of 2011 and public support of military intervention of any support sparse, the United States took the role more of a spectator than major player, still feeling the sting of a pair of long and drawn out Middle Eastern warswinding down (Tharoor).
Watching from afar and offering little support to their democratic compatriots, the international community did not directly intervene with the uprisings either, leading to severe instability in newly democratic Iraq and Libya, as well as in Syria, where U.N. condemned President al-Assad still remains in power (Tharoor). Countries already in debt, from the United States to Italy to the EU as a whole, were unwilling to expend resources, even for causes they adamantly supported in the case of the Arab Spring Uprisings, due to popular opinion already scarred by the Iraq War. This led many fledgling populist uprisings to fail, unaided by any organized military unit, particularly in Egypt where even today a de facto military rule is in effect (“Egypt”). In scarring the international community during the Iraq War, and encouraging nations to not intervene directly, the conflict in the Iraqi desert as a whole contributed to much of the instability currently seen in the Middle East today.
Without the public support to even truly consider a ground-based military intervention following the Iraq War, countries from outside the region sought out other ways to further their interests in the Middle East. Coinciding with the rise of drone aircraft technology in the United States, the result was a clear-cut solution to a problem plaguing politicians seeking office on a more pacifistic platform, while still remaining involved abroad. As published in the Toronto Star in 2012, “A majority of war-weary Americans, however, continue to support drone strikes, with 62 per cent in favour versus 28 per cent against, according to [the Pew Research Center]. They may be outliers on the issue, but the obvious advantages from an American perspective – the targeted removal of would-be threats without risking U.S. soldiers – remains a politically winning formula (Potter)”.
The result has been an increasing reliance on what Keith L Shimko, PhD, refers to as “air power”. In his book The Iraq Wars and America’s Military Revolution, Dr. Shimko refers to this transformation as a sort of military revolution, transforming the way the superpower uses its power particularly in the Middle East to shape the region. In practice the technique has only been used for the last few years, but the examples are particularly prominent. During the Libyan Revolution, NATO launched air strikes against forces commanded and allied with then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi in an effort to support the actions of the populist uprising within his country (Tharoor). Largely driven by the “winning formula” politically that Dr. Shimko refers to, the U.S. and allied forces continue to launch airstrikes in the region against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria today (Feeney).
Ironically, the modern target of military intervention in the form of “air power” also offers a stark reminder of why outright invasion has become such an avoided topic for foreign powers. “The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is yet another warning sign that military interventions can have unforeseen and unwanted consequences. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a product of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a military intervention that accelerated the growth of extremist movements that threaten to destabilize much of the Muslim world. (R., M.)”In toppling the power base of one of the Levant’s powers, a vacuum arose in its place. By intervening with no-fly zones, such as were used in Libya to keep Gadhafi-sympathizing jets grounded, and airstrikes, as are currently used in Syria and Iraq to combat the Islamic State’s incursion into Kurdish lands, no such vacuum is created, as by virtue the airstrike is a support mechanism, aiding a faction already on the ground ready and willing to take the place of the targeted group.
However drone warfare is not a perfect science, nor without its own set of consequences. “According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, majorities in nearly 20 countries worried about how the U.S. uses its power (Potter)”, in reference to the rising influence through drone warfare the country commands abroad.The perceived threat haunts many populations, even among allies, as it seems all too powerful.
Also, the movements supported by drone warfare have not been perfectly successful. In Libya today, ISIS has established a base of power on the coast in Derna and the country remains on the brink of a low-level civil war (“Video”). Syria is still divided amongst rival factions, from President Assad to the Islamic State to rebel military groups organized by a variety of minority and religious groups (Tharoor). As a result, until the rise of the drone and “air power” gains more of a historical context, it remains to be seen exactly how effective a means the technology will prove in promoting stability within the Middle East.
In avoiding direct military intervention due to fears of another tedious war reminiscent of the Iraq War that developed following the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, many international powers have found the benefits both at home and abroad of the use of airstrikes, no-fly zones, and other forms of what Dr. Shimko describes as “air power”. A symbolic gesture, the act by virtue is one of support, and so far seems to be more conducive to the development of a natural and popular stability in the region, following the examples of the Arab Spring Uprisings in 2011. However, as the strategy is still developing, notably in the Levant with its use against the Islamic State, it still remains to be seen entirely how effect the policy is in actually achieving the goals of the democratic trends it has historically supported.
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