Official photos and accounts of the President watching the raid on a secure link in the Situation Room drew clear allusions to the iconic photo of President Barack Obama and his team viewing the assault on Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan in 2011. That was an operation that Biden advised against, according to multiple contemporary accounts — a point Republicans often surface to paint him as weak and wrong on foreign policy. Wednesday’s raid gives the President a counter-argument, as aides portrayed him as deeply immersed in every aspect of the planning of the operation for weeks.
Most of the details of the operation available so far come from official US sources. While the US says it was specifically designed to protect civilians, it’s possible new information emerges in the coming days from Washington and elsewhere that challenge the White House’s narrative and temper the sense of triumph lacing administration statements on Thursday. There is already a discrepancy, for example, between the number of civilian casualties reported by the Pentagon and Syria’s civil defense group.
The President warmly praised the courage of troops involved in the killing of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, whom the US says was directing ISIS operations worldwide and was instrumental in leading what the United Nations has called a genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq.
“The members of our military are the solid steel backbone of this nation, ready to fly into danger at a moment’s notice to keep our country and the American people safe as well as our allies,” Biden said.
While Biden was acting to defend the country, fulfilling the most important function of his office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki framed the raid in noticeably political terms that seemed designed to puncture critiques of his presidency.
She told reporters on Air Force One that the operation “shows the competence of US leadership, the effectiveness of US leadership, and our ability to keep the American people safe while also standing up for our values at the same time.” Biden ran for president in 2020 stressing he would return competent leadership to the White House after the mayhem of ex-President Donald Trump’s term, but a flurry of crises at home and abroad have called that pledge into question.
The successful operation in Syria appears unlikely, however, to offer the President much of a long-term political boost. Americans are less fixated on terrorism threats than they were a decade ago. It’s doubtful many were familiar with the ISIS leader before Wednesday. And Biden’s dominant political problems are at home, including a pandemic that he vowed to shut down but is still raging and consequent economic problems including fast-rising inflation.
White House says ISIS suffered a ‘catastrophic’ blow
Psaki portrayed the operation in Syria in terms that would rank it amongst the most significant operations of the US war on terror launched after the September 11, 2001 attacks, saying it “delivers a catastrophic blow to ISIS.” While eradicating the institutional knowledge and command capacity of the group’s leader may disrupt operations in the shorter term, some anti-terrorism analysts might disagree with her statement. The idea that wiping out terrorist leaders alone destroys the threat of extremism or willingness of other jihadis to step up has been debunked by 20 years of US anti-terror operations.
Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, dismissed any notion that the administration was conducting what he called a “victory lap.”
“In fact our intelligence community is collecting what was taken off the compound last night, there will shortly be follow up operations to ensure we can continue to degrade this network,” McGurk said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Thursday.
Still, the US operation in Syria came at a time when Biden’s stomach for strong global leadership is under intense scrutiny as he corrals the West in an effort to deter a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it follows six months after his foreign policy acumen and self-professed expertise were left in tatters by the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan, which was marked by a suicide bombing that killed 13 US service personnel and scores more Afghans.
After Biden, stern-faced, appeared on camera Thursday morning for a classic look-the-nation-in-the-eye moment, saying that the operation showed terrorists that “we will come after you and find you,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — who’s trying to hold onto his Senate majority In November — sought to lock in some political advantage by hailing the attack for eliminating the “leader, the world leader, of ISIS.”
It may seem crass given that civilians died in the operation and US troops put their lives on the line to carry it off, but in Washington’s political calculus, the raid may go down as a moment that helps Biden, at least in the short term, as long as the White House storyline stands up.
In reading out the most significant anti-terrorism operation of Biden’s term, US officials said Qurayshi blew himself up as US forces approached his compound. The Syrian civil defense group, the White Helmets, said that at least 13 people were killed, including six children and four women. But Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said four civilians and five combatants were killed in the raid. He said US special forces evacuated 10 people, including eight children from the building. There were no US casualties, though American forces destroyed one helicopter that malfunctioned.
The immediate first-hand US accounts of the operation are difficult to verify independently given the hostile nature of the territory in which it took place in Syria.
And in the past, early descriptions of US offensive operations have sometimes turned out to be wrong. It took days, for instance, for the truth about a US drone strike in Afghanistan in August to become clear. The US military initially defended the attack as necessary to disrupting an ISIS attack on US troops. But it later emerged that it was a tragic error that killed 10 civilians including seven children. There is no indication at this point that Wednesday’s raid in Syria is being misrepresented by the White House. But it is also not possible to know which details of the raid US officials are not sharing with the public. And the Biden administration damaged its own reputation for candor during the Afghanistan debacle when its upbeat descriptions of events on the ground often contrasted with the reality of the confusion in Kabul.
It is not hard to imagine how what it would look like had this operation gone wrong. The President’s authority would have absorbed another disastrous blow. He would have been accused of squandering American lives had service personnel been lost. And it would have furthered the Republican Party’s penchant for comparing his presidency to that of the one-term President Jimmy Carter, who was badly damaged by a helicopter-borne raid designed to rescue US hostages in Iran that ended in disaster and killed eight Americans.
With that backdrop, the political pressures on the President as he weighed a critical life and death mission were considerable. Biden is also the first US President in decades to know the particular agony of having a son or daughter in active service. His late son Beau Biden served in Iraq and the President has spoken frequently about how the fate of US service personnel drives his national security decision making.
Republicans forced to praise Biden
Wednesday’s raid showed America’s capacity to stage anti-terror operations without staging garrisons of ground troops in the Middle East — bolstering Biden’s argument that he can keep Americans safe with “over the horizon” operations without getting dragged into quagmires. One downside, though, is that the raid might also focus attention on the broadening footprint of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which hasn’t broken through much in Washington but could pose yet another foreign policy challenge for the under-pressure President.
In a broader strategic sense, the latest Syria raid demonstrated the capacity of the US armed forces to strike anywhere on Earth. And by accomplishing the mission, US forces allowed the President to tout his own national security credentials. Some of his Republican foes even praised his action in ordering the raid.
“I’m actually pleased that President Biden has targeted a leader of ISIS,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn. “I’ll give credit where credit is due on this strike.” Another frequent Biden critic, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, was asked whether Biden deserved kudos for the operation and seemed unusually to struggle for a soundbite. “Oh, sure. Yeah, no, I think it’s a good — and, I mean, US forces above all,” he said.
The partisan truce won’t last long though.
And any idea that a show of US strength in Syria could alter Putin’s calculations is far-fetched. The anti-terror mission was in some ways a throwback to the dominant foreign policy challenges faced by presidents earlier in the century. While terrorism remains a concern, Biden is facing a more classic great power showdown with Russia — and in Asia with China. While he has been successful in activating the NATO alliance and convincing some skeptical European states to threaten fearsome sanctions if the Kremlin marches across the border into Ukraine, Putin is unlikely to be deterred by discrete US actions in Syria. The Russian leader’s goals and actions may seem contrary to Russian interests when viewed from Washington. But Putin is acting on a set of personal, political and strategic goals that operate on their own logic and may be impervious to US influence.