Thoughts on the Syrian Conflict

Perhaps you have wondered why we don’t just clean up the mess in Syria once and for all? If we can’t handle this, what does that say about our real power and our military might? From a humanitarian viewpoint its civil war is a growing tragedy, and the nasty consequences are spilling over into neighboring states and even our distant European allies. While we have no vital interest in Syria, its conflict destabilizes the entire Middle East. The current situation is definitely against our national interest.

One answer is that we really haven’t been trying very hard to impose our will. Doing so would be costly in every sense of the word, and we have the very discouraging example of our Iraqi adventures in mind. The Trump administration is characteristically confused about what to do. We want to crush ISIS, which maintains its shrinking caliphate in Syria, and there is widespread sentiment among our sometimes compassionate people that evil dictators like Bashar al-Assad are intolerable. The more hard-hearted and skeptical among us think that all of this is really none of our business and that we have more pressing problems at home.

But regardless of these mixed feelings, there is a purely practical consideration. This has been neatly encapsulated in the following diagram by Anastasia Beltyukova of CNN.

This illustrates the current free-for-all mess that would confound the most thoughtful and informed who might seek a way to resolve it. Look at the number of participants. The size of the circles roughly indicates their relative activity and effectiveness. But this is a snapshot in time. Some participants, in particular Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have significant capacity to increase their efforts, with unpredictable consequences. There are no clear-cut allies or even enemies, and the conflict has no boundaries in any conventional sense.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, and I certainly have no prescription in mind for a happy conclusion. My gut instinct is that we should cut our losses and withdraw from direct participation. We can provide material and financial aid to allies who wish to continue productive efforts and we can also help ameliorate the consequences for displaced persons. But not even fighting ISIS in this morass is likely to be effective unless we are willing to fully unleash our power and unless we are willing to stomach the certain collateral damage.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this issue is that I see no achievable endgame that would satisfy our interests. If Assad goes, what then? And squashing ISIS in Syria will simply cause it to metastasize everywhere. This is already underway in Yemen, Libya, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Nigeria just to mention a few of the eighteen identified infections.

A Calculated Risk

It occurred to me long ago that we may be missing a real opportunity in our war against terrorism. This has always been an awkward war for us. It is unlike any of the wars we have fought before in that our opponents are amorphous, and they have few fixed locations that they control and protect. They are hard to find amongst innocents camouflaging their fighters, and they employ unconventional tactics that blunt our powerful weapons. But now ISIS has arisen as chief among the various terrorist groups and it uncharacteristically professes to want a real state, with boundaries, government structures and even international standing.

We have fought more or less vigorously against ISIS both to defeat it and to prevent the creation of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. And ISIS is going to fail in its dream of a Caliphate. It has lost 12% of its territory in western Iraq and northern Syria just this year alone. The end is inevitable given the forces arrayed against it. And when it does, the terrorist threat will get worse!

Wait, what? That’s what FBI Director James Comey predicts. He says that when ISIS’ self-proclaimed Caliphate is finally crushed, a terrorist diaspora will fan out across the world, launching ever more attacks. We already see that developing, in Libya, Yemen, Bangladesh, Nigeria and elsewhere, not to mention the sporadic horrific incidents in the West.

war-truth1So what is this opportunity we have been missing? We should have let the Caliphate develop! I am not proposing that we should have actively promoted it against the opposition of other Middle Eastern countries, just that we should not have interfered. The reason is that it is in our best interest to evolve ISIS into a conventional opponent, more susceptible to the threat of our power and with something substantial to lose. It is true that this Caliphate would present a genuine threat to its neighbors, but then so do established states in the region like Iran and Syria. An actual country, with assets of value, is a potential hostage to constrain bad behavior. Moreover it filters out the enemy from those we wish to protect. As in all conventional conflicts, anyone within the territory and control of our enemy is fair game. The full panoply of our instrumentalities of war can be employed without the niceties of limited rules of engagement.

In other words, let’s give them a place to congregate and lay down roots, then threaten to lay waste to their treasure and society. If they truly want a place of their own where strict Shari’a law prevails, where they can run their affairs to match their absolutist philosophy, that would hold real value for them. They wouldn’t rashly sacrifice it. Anyway, that’s the idea. It’s a calculated risk, but not one that couldn’t be reversed if its hopes are not realized.

An Aimless Strategy in Syria

This morning, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey are once again testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Often these meetings are political posturing but sometimes the questions are pertinent and the answers are revealing. As so often in the past, the Senators are probing into our strategies in Iraq and Syria, and what comes across strongly is that, in both cases, we are following what we hope is the least bad of very unpalatable alternatives. But, like it is said of second marriages, these strategies are the triumph of hope over experience.

“Take Syria – please!”, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. We want Assad to go, but we don’t want either a descent into chaos or a replacement regime that is just as bad or even worse. It isn’t surprising that we really don’t have a strategy to accomplish this, as Obama has repeatedly admitted. We have two recent examples of what can happen when a dictator is overthrown in the Middle East. We helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and the result gives even chaos a good name. In Egypt, Mubarak was removed with our encouragement and connivance only to be replaced by an autocratic military dictatorship. And in each of these cases the countries involved were fairly stable before their revolutions, at least by Middle East standards. By contrast Syria is a boiling cauldron of conflict that is already producing one of the greatest human catastrophes of recent times.


So let us suppose for an insane moment that Assad voluntarily leaves without taking down the instrumentalities of government. What then? As Ash Carter relates, we want “some reasonable Syrian opposition” to take charge, commit to a pluralistic government, and execute a forceful and successful campaign to purge Syria of ISIS and the al-Nusra front. This fanciful dream is what passes for our strategy.

I am reminded, as I am so often with the international policies of the Obama administration, of an oft-quoted paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”

This brings me to my point. Take the premise which began this exercise in futility. Precisely why do we want Assad to go? No doubt he is a murderous thug, but at least he was maintaining some semblance of stability, and he had reached a partial accommodation with our ally Israel that avoided outright confrontation. Given a realistic assessment, might he not indeed be the least bad of unpalatable alternatives? The results of attempting his overthrow so far, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, include 7.6 million internally displaced persons and 12.2 millions desperately needing humanitarian assistance. This is not the direct consequence of our actions alone, but we do bear some responsibility. And there is no light at the end of this tunnel.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

There is a definition of insanity often attributed to Einstein. It is that insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. As an aside, there is no convincing evidence that the great man actually said it, though I am sure he would have agreed.

I have a passive corollary that rings true to me. It is a sign of psychosis to repeatedly make a prediction that never comes to pass and yet to act as though it will. There must come a time for the mentally competent when the basis of the prediction is questioned. A common example of this is the doomsday theorist. If the end of times is always nigh, when does that become a useless belief?

So how does this relate to current events, the topic of this blog? I think President Obama and his supporters are exhibiting this flaw in their policy for ISIS, specifically in Iraq. They repeatedly predict that there will come a time when the Shi’ite government in Baghdad will unite with their Sunni and Kurdish citizens to form a competent military force capable of combating ISIS. All it takes, they say over and over again, is a little more training and hand-holding, just a smidgen more military support, or a bit more time. Have patience, they argue.

This belief flies in the face of everything we know about Iraq. For the Shi’ite government to accomplish this reconciliation they must believe that it can actually succeed, and that creating a competent Sunni fighting force wouldn’t backfire upon them in time. Sunnis and ShiitesBut they have hundreds of years of evidence that tells them the contrary. Moreover their sponsors in Iran have even less motivation to support an Iraqi Sunni resurgence. As for training the Iraqi government forces, when does it stick? If our trainees drop their weapons and run away time after time, why should we think this will end?

And yet the President seems to seriously maintain this belief. My suspicion is that when he says “have patience” he is speaking in code. What he really means is “let’s all wait this out until the end of my term when it will become someone else’s problem.”

Confronting ISIS — More or Less

Yesterday I watched a disturbing news report on TV. It discussed a news conference by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and included relevant video clips. The reporter started off indignant about what he was hearing but then dissolved into helpless laughter. Truly, what Carter was saying sounded ludicrous although he kept a perfectly straight face throughout.

Remember our plan for dealing with ISIS in Syria? Last June, the President asked Congress for $500M to arm and train “reliable” Syrian dissidents to combat ISIS. After much grunting and groaning, this effort has given birth to its first training group. When they are ready, this formidable force will consist of 90 fighters. Let me repeat that number, 90! And probably not all would actually be fighters. In a comparable U.S. force, not more than half would be at the pointy end of the spear. Carter went on to say that another such group should enter training within a month.


At this rate and force size, given attrition and likely desertions in the field, I doubt that we could maintain a constant fighting force much above a few hundred at most.  And that assumes that they actually fight rather than run, a possibility not easily dismissed given our experience in Iraq. Just for comparison, while estimates vary wildly, it is generally believed that 50-100 foreign fighters join ISIS every day. They will swat this dissident brigade off like they do the ubiquitous sand flies of the Syrian desert.

To be fair, I don’t much like any of the alternatives, but pretending that this holds real promise is a joke — but not a very amusing one. As an aside, listening to Secretary Carter present his case reinforced an impression I got from his confirmation hearings. Based on his curriculum vitae he is a very smart and accomplished man, but he is in dire need of a good speech coach.