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The Enemy of My Enemy: Islamic State and the Internationalization of the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars Part 3

02/01/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2015

The US Role in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars 2012-2014

The military involvement of the United States in the Syrian Civil War officially began in June 2014, when President Barack Obama authorized American air strikes against Islamic State (IS) militants as well as other radical jihadist groups operating in Syria and Iraq. At that time Obama also urged other countries to join the campaign in a broad, multinational effort to help the Syrian rebels and "degrade" the military capabilities of IS. In reality a limited American involvement began much earlier. Almost from the very beginning of the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War there was an extensive debate within the Obama Administration over what assistance, if any, the US should provide to the Syrian rebels.

In March of 2012, President Obama requested the Pentagon to prepare a range of military options to help the Syrian rebels. According to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, the options considered ranged from humanitarian airlifts of food and medical supplies, to sharing intelligence on Syrian military plans and capabilities with the rebels, to the establishment of an actively patrolled "no-fly zone" over Syria.

In early June 2012, pursuant to a presidential order authorizing support for the Syrian rebels, the CIA collaborated in setting up a "nerve center" in Adana, Turkey, to direct military aid to the Syrian rebels. The base was at Adana, Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border. Adana also hosts the Incirlik Air Force base where the US maintains a sizeable military presence and supply depot as well as broad intelligence gathering capabilities.

At about the same time, the White House authorized 15 million dollars, later increased to 25 million dollars, in "non-lethal" aid via a State Department humanitarian relief program. This aid consisted of medical supplies, communications equipment and light trucks. It also directed the Pentagon to prepare a list of additional military options. The military aid was being provided chiefly by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. It does not appear that any military supplies were coming from the US The CIA's role was to help coordinate the effort and, most likely, to try to insure that aid was provided to rebel groups that the US deemed "acceptable."

Later that summer, during a press conference at the White House, President Obama declared that humanitarian aid to Syria had reached 82 million dollars and, while declining a "military response," noted that it would be, "a red line for us if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." Adding, "That would change my calculus." The White House, however, turned down a proposal presented by David Petraeus, the Director of the CIA, and supported by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to begin arming the Syrian rebels over concerns that the weaponry might fall into the hands of jihadists and that it might draw the US further into the Syrian Civil War.

In an effort to marginalize jihadists, as well as provide broad political legitimacy to the Syrian rebels, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab supporters of the Syrian rebels urged the creation of the National Council of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In addition, a Revolutionary Military Council was organized under the National Council to coordinate the operations of the various rebel groups and to "unite units of Free Syrian Army, various militias and brigades in each city and large groups of defectors," and to funnel military aid to the rebels. Concurrently, the CIA began a program in Jordan and Turkey to train Syrian rebels, with particular emphasis on antitank and antiaircraft weaponry. At the same time, the US government began supplying both arms and nonlethal aid to the Syrian rebels.

US aid steadily increased during 2013, and is believed to have reached several hundred million dollars. This was in addition to several billion dollars of aid that was being supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and their Gulf allies. At the same time, the CIA began to supply "actionable intelligence" to rebel groups to use against Syrian government forces. In response to the disarray of the Syrian rebels and the growing strength of the more radical jihadist groups, especially the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, the US began directly arming specific rebel groups.

Reports that the Assad government had used sarin gas in an attack against the rebels on August 21 almost precipitated an American cruise missile attack against military targets in Syria. The White House backed off the response when Great Britain and other NATO allies declined to participate in the attack. Instead the White House seized on a Russian proposal to secure and transfer, under U.N. supervision, any chemical weapons out of Syria.

Support for the Syrian rebels mounted steadily over the first half of 2014. According to the US State Department, non-lethal aid, including assistance to neighboring countries for support of refugees from the Syrian fighting, had reached two billion dollars by June of 2014. In the meantime, in March of 2013, the European Union agreed to lift the arms embargo against supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels and agreed that member states could provide arms and training.

In response to the gains of the Islamic State in Iraq, in June 2014 the White House requested congressional funding of 500 million dollars to arm and train "appropriately vetted groups" within the Syrian opposition. It also requested an additional five billion dollars in antiterrorism funding to assist a number of Middle East countries in dealing with terrorist threats.

At the same time, on June 15, the White House declared than the United States would lead a multinational effort of targeted air strikes against Islamic State and other jihadist militants in Syria and Iraq. Originally, in what was likely an attempt to downplay the significance of the military campaign, no code name was assigned to the operation. On October 15, the campaign was retroactively called Operation Inherent Resolve. The name covers both the interventions in Iraq and in Syria against IS.

Concurrently, on June 15, the Iraqi government requested assistance in coping with the offensive from Islamic State militants. In response, on June 29, the White House immediately dispatched 300 soldiers to defend the Baghdad International Airport from attack by IS forces. The US also stepped up drone surveillance over Baghdad. The surveillance was in addition to an ongoing program over Iraq, which had been in operation since 2013, to track jihadist activity. An additional 800 troops were dispatched to beef up the defense of the American Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil amid reports that Islamic State militants had been training for an assault on the US embassy in Baghdad.

Despite Pentagon concerns that many Iraqi military units were infiltrated by either Sunni or Shia extremists and that the embedding of US military personnel in such units would put them in danger, the White House, on August 5, directed US military forces in Iraq to "assess and advise" Iraqi forces in their conflict with IS militants.

On August 5, the US began to directly supply Kurdish Peshmerga forces with arms. On August 7, in response to the IS siege that had trapped some 40,000 Yazidi and Christian refugees on Sinjar mountain, the US began aerial drops of food and water to the trapped refugees. That same day, President Obama announced that he was authorizing air strikes against IS militants surrounding Sinjar mountain and those threatening to advance on Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The next day, US Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighters struck IS militants.

A total of 162 air strikes were conducted in Iraq by the United States in conjunction with its allies in Operation Inherent Resolve between August 8 and September 16. In a letter to Congress dated August 18, President Obama announced that he was expanding the scope of the air campaign in Iraq to include the protection of key Iraqi infrastructure and to pursue Islamic State forces wherever they might be in Iraq.

On October 11, a force of approximately 10,000 IS troops from Mosul and Syria advanced toward Baghdad. By October 12, they had penetrated to within 15 miles of the Baghdad airport. In response, the US dispatched Apache Attack Helicopters to attack the advancing IS troops. This was the first time the US military, other than for air forces, was directly engaged in conjunction with Iraqi troops against IS militants. On December 14, reportedly, US ground forces in conjunction with Iraqi Army units and Sunni militias clashed with IS militants near the Ein al-Assad base about 100 miles west of Baghdad in Anbar province. The base houses about 350 American advisers. The Pentagon subsequently denied that US ground troops had been involved in the battle.

By the end of the year the US and its allies had conducted a total of 799 air strikes in Iraq and 572 in Syria at a total cost in excess of 1.1 billion dollars. Roughly 82 percent of all of the air strikes had been conducted by American air forces. The balance of the attacks in Iraq had been carried out by a combination of air forces from Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and the United Kingdom. While the balance of the attacks in Syria had been carried out by air forces from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE. In addition, Italy and Spain offered aerial refueling and other support. Italy also offered four Panavia Tornado IDS fighter-bombers, but as of year-end it was not clear if these had actually been deployed in theater.

American military operations in the Syrian Civil War began on July 4, 2014, when, following US air strikes against an Islamic State base known as the Osama bin Laden Camp, two dozen US Special Forces parachuted in from helicopters. The mission was to capture potential high value IS personnel stationed at the camp as well as the freeing of Western hostages being held there. The US troops were also, it's believed, supported by Jordanian Special Forces personnel, although this has never been confirmed. The mission failed as the hostages had been moved the day before and no high value IS militants were found. Following a three hour firefight, US forces withdrew. In the month following the rescue attempt, American journalist James Foley, American aid worker Peter Kassig, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, were all beheaded by IS militants.

On August 26, the US began surveillance flights over Syria to gather intelligence on potential IS targets. The United States and its Arab allies began air strikes in Syria on September 22. The US also launched Tomahawk missiles from American ships in the eastern Mediterranean. According to Iranian sources, the White House assured Tehran that it would only be targeting Islamic State and other radical jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, like the al-Nusra Front and the Khorasan Group, and that it did not intend to attack Syrian military forces. The United States did not officially ask the Syrian government for permission to intervene prior to its air attacks. It did, however, inform Syria's representative at the United Nations of intended air strikes; although not of the specific targets. To date, Syrian military radar and air defense systems have been "passive" during the American led air raids.

See also Part 1, Iranian Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars and Part 2 Foreign Involvement in the Syria and Iraqi Civil Wars. Forthcoming: Part 4, Postscript: The Enemy of my Enemy

Footnotes have been omitted from these articles but are included in the book version.