David M. Faris
| (Informed Comment) | – –
Last month’s horrific attacks in Paris and last week’s massacre in California – which was at most loosely connected to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL)– have renewed calls for more robust U.S. intervention in Syria. The momentum toward escalation is hardly limited to the political right: Opinion polling suggests that Americans now narrowly favor ground operations in Syria. Yet the commentary calling for an invasion – let’s be honest about terminology here – of Syria is almost universally vague. All The King’s Senior Fellows and All the King’s Distinguished Policy Directors seem incapable of outlining how their recommendations would actually work in practice, presumably leaving it to civilian and military officials to hash out the details of their grand war plans.
Keeping in mind that the United States is already heavily involved, diplomatically and militarily, in Syria, there are effectively three schools of hawkish thought about how to escalate. The most extreme was outlined by Ohio Governor John Kasich in Tuesday’s Las Vegas debate: a massive ground invasion of Syria modeled after the first Gulf War. While Kasich appears to occupy the most aggressive space in the presidential primary, the right wing press is flush with support for such a scenario, which, thankfully, is not currently a realistic option. A second camp believes the air war against Daesh should be vastly expanded. Ted Cruz’s calls to unleash carpet bombing and possibly use nuclear weapons on territories held by Daesh may be well within the mainstream of the right wing punditocracy, but is clearly not a serious proposal. In the third camp are partisans of sending anywhere between a few thousand and 50,000 ground troops into Syria. In the more modest version of this plan, the force would be comprised of special operations and intelligence officers to disrupt the operations of Daesh in Syria. The more expansive version, pushed by the notorious Max Boot, is what he calls “Afghanistan Plus” – up to 30,000 troops and advisors in Iraq and Syria, establishing safe zones and training “moderate rebels” for a final push against both Assad and Daesh. Last month’s policy brief from The Washington Institute For Near East Policy’s Matthew Levitt is typical of the genre. Levitt offers the following as the sum total of WINEP’s conventional wisdom on the subject:
“With increased airstrikes operating under more reasonable rules of engagement, and a limited military force on the ground, safe zones could be established where civilians could be protected, interim government could be established, and moderate forces could be trained to control territory once the Islamic State is expelled.”
Sounds easy, right? Yet Levitt offers no further elaboration on how this will work, nor do most of the pundits and Thinklandia experts calling for escalation. Those who do provide such details, like Boot himself, are relying on a number of questionable assumptions that need to be fully interrogated. Because you can see this logic being pushed across all channels of the Beltway policy elite as well as the GOP primary field, it must be taken seriously. However, there are several significant problems with the Afghanistan Plus plan, and no easy workaround for any of them. Therefore anyone casually advocating a significant U.S. military escalation in the fight against Daesh should be forced to answer the following 5 questions:
1.What will happen to the militant core of Daesh?
Mobilizing thousands of U.S. ground troops, as well as training sufficient local forces, would obviously involve lead time that Daesh can use to plan accordingly. As we learned, or should have learned, in Iraq, dedicated cadres would be unlikely to stay and fight American forces in some kind of pitched battle. Part of the group’s militant core can hunker down and fight a guerrilla campaign against occupying forces, with others fleeing to Daesh affiliates in Libya, Somalia, Northwest Pakistan and other liminal territories. As it was in Iraq, the attraction of killing American soldiers may prove to be irresistible to radicalized individuals inclined to engage in transnational violence. How could policymakers be sure that a ground operation will result in breaking the backbone of Daesh, rather than leading to its reconstitution in other forms elsewhere? If the leadership moves to, say, Libya, will the U.S. pursue them there? Why should we not expect ground operations to attract more transnational radicals to this struggle? And contrary to the idea that the U.S. is engaged in some halfhearted bombing effort, the military has struck so many targets that it is running out of munitions. What will ‘carpet bombing’ achieve that throw-rug bombing hasn’t?
2. How will the force structure suggested by hawks succeed?
The force levels suggested by the non-Kasich critics are comically inadequate to secure territories held by Daesh even in a best-case scenario. Well over 100,000 American troops were incapable of pacifying the Iraqi insurgency, and the relative peace purchased during the “Surge” turned out to be illusory. Policymakers need to remember the lessons of America’s inconclusive 15-year conflict with the Taliban rather than the brief and seemingly successful operation to dislodge them from power in 2001. Even if you optimistically add in the combat strength of the “moderate” rebels, many of whom will anyway need to remain behind to secure the territories they already hold, as well as troops from willing NATO or Arab participants, the overall force blundering into Daesh territory will be smaller than that which failed to secure Iraq. This is to say nothing of Boot’s delusional idea to have these forces prepare to take on Assad and his allies at the same time. Experts almost universally regard the U.S. invasion force of Iraq to have been woefully inadequate. Why should we expect Syria to be any different?
3. On whose side are we to be fighting?
U.S. troops would also be entering an active theater of war between a bewildering array of armed combatant groups. Such an intervention would be unprecedented in the annals of modern warfare. Even in Afghanistan, the U.S. was able to identify both the rebel proxy (the Northern Alliance) and the target (the Taliban). But the current map of control in Syria looks like a series of artlessly drawn congressional districts, and the situation on the ground even in territories nominally held by “rebels” defies easy categorization, with some collaborating loosely with the Assad regime and others coexisting with more militant entities like Jabhat al-Nusra. Republican candidates like Marco Rubio say that we need to “work with the Sunnis.” But which ones? Russia and the U.S. can’t currently agree on which rebels it is acceptable to work with, and the Saudi coalition includes groups like Ahrar al-Sham, whose empowerment would be dangerous. Even were it to push Daesh out of its strongholds, the U.S. and/or its proxies would find themselves in the unwelcome position of determining who controls disputed territory. The U.S. discovered the hard way in Iraq what happens when you destroy a government and then have no feasible plan for what to put in its place. We also got a first-hand look at the ability of U.S. military and civilian officials to manage multifaceted civil conflict in Iraq. The reviews were not good. What exactly has changed in the interim that should give us confidence our officials have learned how to govern complex foreign societies teeming with ethnoreligious tensions?
4. How will a ground invasion of Syria decrease the risk of radicalization in Europe and the United States?
Everything we have learned about external interventions in this region since 1979 suggests that the presence of foreign forces, over time, increases the supply of potential radicals. Even careful military operations by their very nature involve near-constant violence, and forces are unlikely to be received particularly warmly in territories currently controlled by Daesh. Part of the narrative advanced by recruiters is one of Muslim countries under siege by the West, and a ground invasion led by the U.S. or NATO would play directly into this sense of grievance. Those who argue that Daesh recruits successfully because of its territorial base need to reckon with the fact that its territory has been shrinking while recruitment has increased. The San Bernardino attackers had been stockpiling weapons since 2012, long before ISIS existed in its current form. And the lack of a “state” did nothing to stop the growth of Al-Qaeda in places like Yemen over the course of the past decade. What empirical evidence or theory suggests that expelling Daesh from Syria will eliminate the threat of radicalization?
5. What Is the End Game?
In a widely read article written in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis advocated an alliance-led invasion whose purpose would be “to defeat the Islamic state in Syria and destroy the infrastructure it has created there.” Few would regard this outcome as unwelcome, but like many other critics advocating escalation, Stavridis offers no vision whatsoever of what happens the day after after the black flags come down. The trouble is that we cannot simply vaporize Daesh and then walk away. What is the Stavridis-Boot plan for the political disposition of this territory? John Bolton got (rightly) laughed at for calling for the creation of a ‘Sunnistan” in Iraq and Syria, but he at least raises an important question: Will the ex ante borders of Syria and Iraq be restored? Will immediate efforts be made to reunite this territory with other territories in Syria? How is this even possible in the absence of a political settlement in Damascus? Boot suggests a confederal structure in Syria that would be guaranteed by American troops, as well as creating a Sunni region in Iraq even above the objections of Baghdad. Would the U.S. reinforce whatever Sunni entity emerges from this struggle? If the plan is to use this entity to topple a recalcitrant Assad, are we to believe that the Russians and Iranians will just let this happen? Everyone seems to agree that al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra will not be invited to the party – will we attack them too?
These questions are not merely academic. To listen to the cable news mafia, or the disturbing cavalcade of Republican hysteria on stage in Las Vegas on Tuesday, you would think Daesh was marching its way up the Jersey Turnpike to sack New York. The political climate in the U.S. has become profoundly dangerous, in ways that are even worse than the aftermath of 9/11. Another terrorist attack of any kind in the U.S. or Europe could generate irreversible momentum toward some kind of ground invasion of Syria. It takes nothing away from the horror in Paris and San Bernardino to suggest that we might be overreacting to these provocations. Despite some setbacks, it appears the Iraqi campaign is working, as government units slowly recapture territory lost to Daesh during its meteoric rise last summer. The government has Ramadi under siege and on the verge of collapse. Once it is pushed out of Iraq, Daesh will become just another participant in the Syrian civil war – hardly the global caliphate it pretends to be.
Policymakers in the Obama Administration appear to recognize the limits of military force as an instrument of policy. The dispiriting carnage in Syria, and the attendant rise of a global threat from Daesh cells and supporters, should not be used as an excuse to pretend that those limitations do not exist. Instead, they should serve as an opportunity for a full-spectrum reevaluation of U.S. strategy. But this is not to offer uncritical support for the policies of this administration. While Obama may be more reluctant than his predecessor to deploy ground forces to the Middle East, the U.S. has hardly been uninvolved. Since 2002, the U.S. has used drone strikes and other covert operations to kill more than 7,000 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It has spent upwards of $4 trillion prosecuting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and untold billions on expanding covert military operations in Africa and the Gulf. Despite exhibiting some welcome restraint, the Obama foreign policy team still appears to buy into the 7,000-mile-wide, quarter-inch-deep foreign policy consensus in this country that the problems of the region can only be resolved with American leadership in the form of missiles, bombs and bases. Yet none of this violence seems to have put much of a dent in the basic appeal of Daesh or Al Qaeda. The idea that it is American grand strategy that is the problem, rather than just the Iraq War or halfhearted involvement in Syria, still cannot get a real hearing in DC.
As for Syria, there can be no solution to the problem of Daesh without a broader settlement. To be clear, the Syrian civil war is a major crisis, for which the U.S. bears some responsibility, and the refugee exodus is a humanitarian catastrophe that threatens to destabilize states from the Levant to Central Europe. It is shameful that it took attacks on Western civilians, rather than the deaths of 250,000 innocent Syrians, for the major players to get serious about settling the civil war. But the road to Raqqa must ultimately run through Damascus. Rather than caving in to pressure to unleash more destructive violence, the U.S. must work with both its allies and adversaries to bring the bloody Syrian civil war to a close. Only a united front led by Syrians themselves can capably eliminate Daesh and forge a political settlement acceptable to the civilians currently under its rule. This is precisely the slow, difficult work that the administration is engaged in, and it remains a better plan than blundering into yet another military occupation.
David M. Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago.
Related video added by Juan Cole: