President Trump Is Right about Syria
On the campaign trail in 2012, President Obama took credit for ending the war in Iraq and bringing all U.S. troops home from that country. Military leaders quietly decried the evacuation of troops from Iraq. To do so created a vacuum for hostiles, such as the displaced Baath Party members loyal to Saddam Hussein. In early 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria appeared, rolling through the upper third of a largely unarmed and unprotected Iraq, setting the country ablaze.
Although removing U.S. forces from an unarmed Iraq was an obvious blunder, by September 2014, President Obama was dismissing complaints of his handling of the outbreak of hostilities. He declared that ISIS was the equivalent of "a jayvee team" and was nothing to worry about. In 2016, we learned from Secretary John Kerry that regime change in Syria, the removal of Bashar Assad, was the Obama administration's goal. Focused on this agenda, the White House intentionally gave arms to ISIS, betting that ISIS's success would force the Syrian president to acquiesce toward Obama's terms and step down.
U.S. political and military leaders knew that Iraq was working to build up its military, but it had not been able to reconstitute its armed forces in effective numbers. They knew that Iraqi recruits and pilots were in schools run by Americans and taught by Americans. The timing was right for war, as Iraq was utterly defenseless if ISIS came to town.
The Iraqi military had been decimated during Operation Iraqi Freedom. With Saddam Hussein gone, the new Iraqi government used its oil revenues to begin rebuilding the country and its military. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, billion-dollar contracts flowed to American companies. Boeing sold and delivered 747s and 737s for the new Iraqi Airlines. Beechcraft sold and delivered a number of C-12 small transport airplanes and, by 2013, 15 T-6 trainer aircraft. In 2008, Lockheed Martin sold six of its newest C-130J cargo aircraft as well as contracted for 36 new F-16s. I managed some of these contracts.
To maintain American-manufactured aircraft and their complex weapons systems, several million-dollar contracts were awarded. Aviation schools were set up in Amman, Jordan to teach hundreds of Iraqi air force recruits English and aircraft maintenance. Some handpicked, non-Baathist Party air force officers attended U.S. Air Force flight schools in Texas. In May 2014, the first Iraqi F-16IQ made its first flight, and Lockheed Martin began delivering the first batch of Iraq air force F-16s to Tucson, Arizona for Iraqi pilots to fly Iraqi-flagged F-16s.
With the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi government's authority collapsed in the north and affected F-16 deliveries to Iraq. There were real concerns among DOD planners that ISIS would be able to destroy Iraq's new jets as they were being delivered – and if not the jets, then the massive logistical tail – manpower, fuels, hangars, spare parts, ordnance – necessary to operate and maintain a front-line fighter. Those concerns were borne out in June 2014 as hundreds of newly trained, English-speaking, unarmed Iraqi air force recruits were massacred when ISIS overran their air force base in Balad. ISIS looted or destroyed weapon systems, armored vehicles, and even tanks.
When I arrived in Baghdad in November 2014 to sign a contract to establish a flight school in southern Iraq, ISIS was on the march and making inroads into the capital city. One day we were unable to continue contract discussions, as the road from the Baghdad International Airport to the Ministry of Defense in downtown Baghdad was shut down, the blast from a car bomb rocked our hotel and tore a bus-sized hole in the highway. As the worldwide price of oil continued to drop, and without a single Iraqi F-16 to engage the enemy, the Iraqi air force was forced to cancel our contract (and others), and the president redirected funds from aviation support programs to augment ground units engaged in fighting ISIS.
That was then. Today, the Iraq air force has a squadron of F-16s. Thirteen additional F-16 aircraft will be delivered in 2019, bringing to 34 the number of fighters operated by the service. A new flight school is up and running, and former U.S. Air Force instructor pilots are pumping out basic pilots who will learn how to fly and use the F-16 as a fighting weapon system. Late 2019 will see the Iraq air force flight school in Arizona closed.
This week, President Trump said he was bringing home all U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. Politicians from both parties have denounced the president's decision as reckless or dangerous. But Obama's weapons shipments to ISIS have long ceased. Iraq is no longer unarmed or incapable of fighting ISIS in Syria, as it was when Obama brought back U.S. forces. There is no vacuum for a caliphate-seeking competitor to invade an unarmed Iraq and regain its capital. ISIS may be armed with inferior Soviet-era weapons now. It is being systematically destroyed by some of the best technology America can produce.
President Trump hasn't abandoned Iraq or the people of Israel or Jordan or Syria. Politicians who know better still object to President Trump's move, well aware that killing off what is left of ISIS in Syria can be handled by Iraqi, Israeli, Jordanian, UAE, and even Saudi air forces. A multinational coalition of Islamic countries has been attacking ISIS with their F-16s for years. While the Obama administration curtailed armament sales or hampered deliveries of ordnance to those Muslim countries, the Trump administration has greatly increased armament sales. The Iraq air force once had a few F-16s and some ordnance to attack ISIS in the north and Syria, but the detonators for those bombs were never provided. Today, Iraq F-16s are fully weaponized and bomb the living daylights out of ISIS.
The Iraq Ministry of Defense (MOD) awarded billions of dollars to U.S. companies to buy advanced armored vehicles, strengthen its national military supply chain, build new bases and infrastructure for its army, and buy advanced scout helicopters. The Iraqi MOD has made incredible progress re-establishing a viable military to compete with terrorists and ISIS and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Iraq is rearmed with U.S. manufactured equipment, and the militaries of the Middle East can handle a diminished ISIS without additional U.S. forces. Our men and women in uniform in Syria are no longer needed.
Our troops can come home.