On the afternoon of August 31, 2013, French Rafale fighter jets bristled on their runways, readied for war. As far as French President Francois Hollande was concerned, D-Day had arrived; at 3 a.m. his planes would begin air strikes against missile batteries and command centers of the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division -- the Syrian military's most trusted military unit, and the one in charge of chemical weapons.
The reason: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line" when, just 10 days earlier, he had apparently used chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, against the rebels battling him and the civilians who, as usual, bore the brunt of Assad's fury. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was the regime's third -- and deadliest -- use of sarin gas to date. Now it was time to for the United States and its allies to make good on the president's word.
But at the last minute, Obama called Hollande to tell him the strikes were off; he would instead seek the backing of Congress before any military action was taken. It was support he most likely knew he would not get; at nearly the last possible moment, he had changed course.
This development was perhaps not entirely unsurprising. A key tenet of Obama's first presidential campaign was to withdraw the United States from its costly and bloody adventurism in the Middle East, a promise that was well received by an American public that had been at war since the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Since then, Obama has largely managed to keep his country out of the Middle East despite the region's descent into sanguinary chaos as Libya, Iraq, and Syria have steadily disintegrated while the militant group Islamic State (IS) has murdered its way into global headlines.
The United States has conducted air strikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq, while it has "advisers" on the ground supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and various groups battling IS in Syria. But, despite the White House's seeming refusal to be drawn into battle on the ground, U.S. involvement may go deeper than many Americans believe. This month an improvised explosive device (IED) killed a U.S. Navy bomb-disposal technician in the town of Ain Issa, less than 60 kilometers from the de facto capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate -- making Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott C. Dayton the first U.S. serviceman to die in Syria and the fifth to be killed while fighting IS since 2015.
Many Americans -- especially those of an isolationist bent -- fear IS as a global terrorist threat and support an air campaign against the extremist group but discount its direct threat in Syria as of little concern. This is wrong. U.S. soldiers are indeed involved in the fight on the ground. America's sons and daughters in Syria are personally at risk from IS -- a fact that has so far been downplayed in the public discussion.
As Michael Weiss, senior editor at the Daily Beast and author of The New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, puts it: "U.S. Special Forces have been recorded embedded with Pentagon-backed rebel forces, such as Liwa al Mutasim, in northern Aleppo, where they were shouted at by Islamist rivals. Their remit may be to 'advise' or to help call in air strikes but it's naive to think that they won't, or don't, engage in combat."
He continues: "Their counterparts in Syria have traded direct fire with [IS] militants who have ambushed Kurdish Peshmerga (one incident previously resulted in the death of another U.S. soldier). The Pentagon likes to fudge this with terminology but the fact is: American boots are on the ground, and American servicemen are in an active state of war against [IS] -- and potentially any other hostile parties they come in contact with."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter echoed Weiss's point, albeit more obliquely, with a public statement on Dayton's death: "I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL," he said, using another shorthand term for IS. "It is a painful reminder of the dangers that men and women in uniform face around the world to keep us safe."
War By Any Other Name
There are around 500 U.S. troops in Syria -- in April, President Obama sent 250 to add to the 50 that were already in the country. The number since then has, accordingly, almost doubled. Earlier in November, Carter announced that the U.S.-supported coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces fighting IS known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had begun the task of retaking Raqqa. As Iraqi forces meanwhile close in on the city of Mosul, in Iraq, the dual IS losses could signal the end of the last pretenses of its purported caliphate.
The numbers may be small, but evidence of "mission creep" is clear. Again, Weiss is unequivocal: "We are involved on the ground," he says. "We have CIA operatives in Iraq and Syria and U.S. soldiers. About 300 in Syria, close to 5/6K in Iraq. It's just not an occupation or 'major combat role,' but this is where 'war' is given to sort of Orwellian euphemisms that U.S. bureaucracy loves to use to deny it is doing exactly what you think it is doing."
The United States is fighting IS in Syria and Iraq in all but name. And as IS becomes increasingly besieged in both countries, it will become more desperate -- and more violent. Traditional warfare will be forsaken in favor of greater use of insurgency tactics. More booby traps and IEDs will lie in wait for both the SDF and ISF; and more U.S. servicemen may die.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to bomb IS heavily and has talked about "extreme vetting" of Muslims traveling or potentially immigrating to the United States for fear of terrorist infiltration. But these views do little to address the reality on the ground that IS poses a threat not just as a worldwide militant group that can inspire atrocities on U.S. soil but also as a military threat to U.S. soldiers already fighting in Syria.
As much as some may deny it, the United States is once again fighting a war in the Middle East.