This weekend saw U.S. Special Forces pull off a stunning raid, flying deep into Syrian territory in an attempt to capture a senior Islamic State leader called Abu Sayyaf. Sayyaf, a Tunisian citizen, was killed in the raid, but his wife was caught and the raid produced “a significant intelligence gain” according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Around the same time, however, the Islamic State made huge strides in Iraq by taking over the city of Ramadi, the largest city in Sunni al-Anbar province, only 68 miles west of Baghdad. ISIS boasted of seizing tanks and executing dozens of Iraqi soldiers and militants. The United States increased its bombing campaign around Ramadi as Shi’a militia began massing for an assault to retake the city.
The success of the Syria raid and the collapse in Ramadi paradoxically point to the same grim fact: America’s chosen policies in the Middle East are failing—and the Obama administration faces uglier and uglier alternatives as it looks ahead.
The raid in Syria was a tactical triumph and points to the enduring strengths of America’s elite fighting units. But it also underscores a failure of administration policy: staying out of Syria is getting harder, the costs of inaction in Syria are growing, and the options for getting into Syria keep getting uglier. As things stand, the Obama Administration will be lucky if nothing worse happens than a government loosely-aligned with al Qaeda takes power with tacit Turkish and Syrian backing—an outcome that would have sent the commentariat into cascades of vituperation if President Bush had been responsible for something so nasty. And in Iraq, the policy of withdrawal clearly failed when Mosul fell; it now appears that the policy of limited re-entry is also in trouble, with the amount of support Obama is willing to provide failing to achieve his minimum goals.