Pentagon: US in Syria 'for the long haul;' hails Peshmerga in 'Operation Viking Hammer'

Michael Mulroy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense, affirmed on Monday that the US does “expect to be” in Syria “for the long haul.”

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan24) – Michael Mulroy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense, affirmed on Monday that the US does “expect to be” in Syria “for the long haul.”

Citing the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Amb. James Jeffrey, Mulroy said that the US was “not in a bad situation” in Syria.

He explained that by adding, “We have a very capable partner,” referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

The territory controlled by the SDF contains “a lot of the oil resources and the arable land for agriculture,” Mulroy continued, “and we are there with them.”

Mulroy also praised the role of Kurdish forces in “Operation Viking Hammer,” a little-known military operation, carried out by the Peshmerga and a small group of special US forces, in the earliest stages of the 2003 Iraq war.

The objective of “Operation Viking Hammer” was to destroy Ansar al-Islam, which consisted of Arab and Kurdish veterans of the war in Afghanistan and which, after September 2001, established a base around Halabja.

Once that was accomplished, the Peshmerga could become the “northern front against Saddam,” as Mulroy described those events, without fearing an attack from their rear by the terrorist group.

Mulroy spoke at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), as it announced the publication of an important new study about US policy in Syria. Its title—“Solving the Syrian Rubik’s Cube” reflects the difficulties involved. There are no good or easy choices.

Nicholas Heras, one of the study’s co-authors, spoke with Kurdistan 24. He explained that of the six scenarios considered in the report, “The option that we supported is that the United States should continue to maintain a presence in over one-third of the country” and “should invest more, both in terms of financial resources and personnel to stabilize” that region of Syria.

Heras stressed the strategic nature of this terrain, as did Mulroy. Somehow, America’s longest war has become the war in Afghanistan, which can scarcely be called strategic (this reporter served as a cultural advisor to the US Army there.)

However, that is not true of Syria and Iraq. As Mulroy noted, counter-terrorism has been reduced to the lowest of US defense priorities. At the top are “peer competitors”: Russia and China.

However, “Russia and China actually play an active part in the Middle East and part of the dialogue that we’re trying to inject into this is it’s not just geographic,” he said.

To think just in terms of geography, “might not be the best way to push back against Russia and China, particularly if they’re building bases in Africa and the Middle East,” Mulroy explained.

Dr. Frances Brown, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, emphasized the need for a political approach to combatting the Islamic State. Her view is very similar to that of the Kurdish leadership, which has repeatedly stressed the need to address “the underlying political and economic conditions” to ensure that the terrorist organization does not reemerge.

Related Article: Coalition stats show ISIS reemerging in Iraq, but defeated (for now) in Syria

“ISIS feeds off a sense of grievance, political exclusion, abusiveness,” Brown told Kurdistan 24. “Within the Syrian context, it can often be very specific and locally entrenched.”

“In the long term, the only way that ISIS or other comparable groups can be combatted is by addressing political grievances, a sense of injustice,” she said, even as she acknowledged it “is obviously a very heavy lift.”

In the course of his discussion with Ilan Goldenberg, Director of the Middle East Program at CNAS and moderator of the seminar, Mulroy praised the SDF, in passing, as “very capable.”

When Kurdistan 24 directly asked Heras his view, he replied with strong praise.

“The Syrian Democratic Forces coalition has been heroic,” Heras said. “What started out as a multi-ethnic coalition of militias has emerged into a governance, administrative, and political-security apparatus that—although it still has some challenges that need to be overcome—really can be the foundation for a future authority in northern and eastern Syria.”

Editing by Nadia Riva