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It's 9/11 again: US military back, but no boots on the ground, yet

How is the US's newly unveiled military strategy in the region different from previous post-9/11 policies?

Bassem Aly, Alia Soliman , Thursday 11 Sep 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

It has been 13 years now since the attacks of September 11 – and the resulting decision of former US president George W. Bush to occupy two states, Iraq and Afghanistan, under the label of "fighting terror."

Yesterday's enemy was Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, but today it's Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's Islamic State (IS), which has managed to impose a stronghold over large areas of Syria and Iraq.

At this point, the irony involves using the same term – the war on terror – after more than a decade, though a different regional context and means of deterrence are in place.

Post-9/11 discourse

Five days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush made a controversial remark when he described the war on terror as a "crusade" that will take a while. "The American people must be patient," he asserted.

Bush's use of the word "crusade" sparked criticism shortly afterwards and inflamed tensions between the Muslim world and the US.

On 20 September, 2002 – one year later – the Republican US president warned that the war on terror began with Al-Qaeda but "does not end there."

"It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated," stated Bush.

Geneive Abdo, a fellow in the Middle East programme at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told Ahram Online that the US government is at times unaware of how terminology is understood in the Middle East.

 "The 'war on terror' has been understood in the Arab world to mean a war on Islam. Therefore, this phrase should be omitted from the discourse on extremism," Abdo asserts.

For Peter Mandaville, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the term itself has always been "largely meaningless and unhelpful."

Bush's successor, President Barack Obama, addressed the world's 1.5 billion Muslims in 2009 from the stage of Cairo University, pledging "a new beginning."

"I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must openly say the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors," Obama said. "There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another and to seek common ground."

Nowadays, Obama is mobilising international support for airstrikes against IS militants, a move that he made public late on Wednesday.

"This is a difficult decision for Obama to make. We have to remember that US military action in Iraq for 10 years provided the basis for increased jihadi recruitment and mobilisation," Mandaville argues.

Obama's military doctrine

On the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the president finally unveiled his awaited plan for deterring the new generation of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

In a 14-minute White House speech, Obama revealed his authorisation to expand military airstrikes against militants in Syria as well as the deployment of 475 military advisors to Iraq.

Obama was undoubtedly keen on distancing himself from Bush's military strategy. "These American forces will not have a combat mission; we will not get dragged into another war in Iraq," he was quoted as saying.

The president asserted that the mission "will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" as it will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.

Ironically, the administration of the US president was ready to launch a military strike against Bashar Assad's regime in September of last year in order to deter its troops from using chemical weapons against civilians.

A last-minute deal saved the situation as the Russians, Assad's key international ally, persuaded him to surrender his chemical stockpile.

Obama said in the speech that the US is building a global coalition – encompassing western friends and some Middle Eastern countries – to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the IS militants. The first concrete sign of such collective action came from Riyadh.

Saudi King Abdullah told Obama in a phone conversation that the Gulf state will host a US training effort for Syrian rebels. The endeavour, however, remains dependent on the US Congress approval of $500 million for training and arming the rebels.

The US earlier refused an offer by the Syrian regime – historically known for its anti-western orientation – to cooperate against the Sunni militants.

Wayne White, ex-deputy director of the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau for the Near East and South Asia, told Ahram Online last week that communication with Assad's regime is "highly risky."

He indicated that the US government is prone to leaks, and as such any indirect contact would probably be "leaked and cause great embarrassment for the administration."

Nevertheless, he believes US military operations against IS could serve the interests of the regime.

"The (Assad) regime might not react to the airstrikes (despite harsh protests) because it also benefits from any weakening of IS and does not want to lose more combat aircraft and experienced pilots," White said.

US public opinion?

Obama's administration has always tried to avoid military options.

Bush eight-year period pushed American voters towards non-intervention. The reasons are crystal clear: huge military and financial costs.

According to a recent report by the New York Times, Obama is acting in response to polls indicating shifts in US public opinion.

The report argued that a large majority of Americans currently favours military action against IS in Iraq and Syria, even as they express "deep misgivings about the president’s leadership."

Two videos were recently released on the web showing the beheading of two US journalists by IS members, an event that has been largely credited for boosting American's perception about new wars in the region.

Obama briefed senior congressional leaders on his plan on Tuesday, a meeting that comes eight weeks ahead of midterm elections in November.

The White House said on Monday that Obama wants Congress to inject money into a counterterrorism fund needed for training and equipping partners in other countries to fight extremists. But no clear information has been provided over the Democrat-Republican voting pattern.

Afshon Ostovar, a policy analyst at the CNA Corporation, said that US support would likely increase if Arab states managed to "take the lead" and form a non-Islamist alternative to Assad among the Sunni opposition in Syria.

"This could change if US allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and perhaps Egypt find a way to champion a moderate force among the Syrian opposition, which could effectively challenge Assad, while also sidelining jihadist groups like Al-Nusra," he claimed.

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