Tag: Syria

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

Fleeting American Public Support for Murky Wars

Calls are mounting in Congress (and among some influential opinion groups) for escalating Washington’s military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for possible military action against Iran if the new nuclear agreement with that country falls apart.  Caution lights should be flashing about both the extent and durability of such sentiment for military action.  As I note in a recent article in the National Interest Online, this country has an unfortunate history of launching ill-considered armed crusades, often initially with enthusiastic public support.  But that support has a tendency to evaporate and turn to bitter recriminations unless certain conditions are met.  Policymakers need to appreciate that history as they consider intensifying U.S. involvement in the Middle East’s turbulent affairs.

Because most Americans believe that the United States embodies the values of individual liberty, human rights, and government integrity, a foreign policy that seems to ignore or violate those values is almost certain to lose the public’s allegiance sooner or later. That is what happened with such missions as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and, more recently, the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.  It is not merely that the ventures failed to achieve quick, decisive results, although that aspect clearly played a role.  It was also that the United States was increasingly seen as expending blood and treasure on behalf of odious clients and dubious causes that had little or nothing to do with the republic’s vital interests.  A disillusioned public turned against those missions, and that development created or intensified bitter domestic divisions.

To sustain adequate public support for military ventures, the objective must be widely perceived as both worthy and attainable.  Without those features, public support for a policy either proves insufficient from the outset or soon erodes, and either development is fatal in a democratic political system.

Preserving public support requires officials to make an honest assessment of the issues at stake.  Too often, both during the Cold War and the post–Cold War eras, U.S. policymakers have hyped threats to American interests.  The alleged dangers posed by such adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bordered on being ludicrous.  At times, it appears that U.S. officials have deliberately engaged in distortions to gin-up public support for purely elective wars.  On other occasions, officials seem to have succumbed to their own propaganda.  In either case, public support dissipates rapidly when evidence mounts that the supposed security threat to America is exaggerated.

That troubling history should reinforce the need for caution as U.S. leaders consider new military interventions, especially in the Middle East.  None of the proposed missions is likely to produce quick, decisive results—much less results with modest financial outlays and minimal casualties.  Moreover, escalating America’s involvement in the region’s myriad troubles puts the United States in a close de facto partnership with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies—some of the most corrupt, brutal governments on the planet.  Publics in the Middle East and around the world are watching, and the potential for unpleasant blowback is extremely high.  And as we saw with the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the reaction of the American people to associations with sleazy foreign clients can become one of profound revulsion.  The conditions are in place for new foreign-policy debacles, if U.S. officials have not learned the appropriate historical lessons.

A Covert Escalation of U.S. Involvement in Syria?

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

In Search of a Syria Strategy: Event (April 30th)

On April 30th, Cato will host an event exploring the future of the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of the United States. Fighting in Syria recently entered its fifth year, and there is no clear end in sight. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 191,000 deaths and has produced more than 9.5 million refugees.

The civil war is chaotic. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of rebel groups currently operating in Syria, many of whom have devoted more time to fighting each other than the regime. Foreign funding and weapons flow freely to all sides. The rise of ISIS and its spread to Iraq, along with the increasing prominence of other extremist groups like al Nusra has further complicated the situation. This map, recently released by the Department of Defense, illustrates some of the complexity:

DoD Map of Syria and Iraq

 

American involvement in Syria was minimal prior to September 2014, when the Obama administration initiated airstrikes to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign is ongoing, and the United States is also funding and training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS. 

Countries at Risk, not Fake U.S. Coalition, Should Stop the Islamic State

President Barack Obama is fighting the Islamic State with a coalition without members.  What are allies for?

Washington collects allies like most people collect Facebook friends.  It doesn’t matter if the new “friends” enhance America’s security.  Washington wants more allies.

Yet America’s allies do little for the U.S.  Their view is that Washington’s job is to defend them.  Their job is to be defended by Washington. 

For decades Washington faced down a nuclear-armed power—the Soviet Union and then Russia—to protect the Europeans.  The Europeans did essentially nothing for the U.S. 

After 9/11 several European states contributed to America’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Neither invading the latter nor attempting to build a democratic central government in the former made policy sense, but some Europeans sacrificed on behalf of a professed U.S. interest. 

However, Washington quickly repaid the favor, underwriting Britain’s and France’s foolish war in Libya.  Now the Europeans want Washington to save Ukraine and “reassure” countries to the east.  Yet the EU has a larger GDP and population than America. 

With the U.S. now calling for assistance against ISIL, the continent has turned more frigid.  No one seems interested in joining Washington’s air war, even Great Britain.

Washington’s Asian friends are even less helpful.  For decades Japan wouldn’t help U.S. forces, even if they were defending Japan.  That is finally changing, but there still is no good reason Washington to stare down the People’s Republic of China to secure Tokyo’s disputed claim to the Senkaku Islands. 

Cato Live Tweeting Obama’s ISIS Speech! #CatoWHSpeech

#CatoWHSpeech

At 9:00PM tonight, President Obama will announce expanded U.S. military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He will likely explain an apparent change in direction that will include airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and possibly increased training and weapons procurement for the Iraqi military and “moderate“ segments of the Syrian rebellion. Americans are understandably worried about getting sucked back into an open-ended conflict.

Don’t miss Cato experts live tweeting Obama’s speech tonight, using the hashtag #CatoWHSpeech. You can check out the reactions and opinions of our scholars in real time. Just follow along and join in!

What Sort of Problem Is ISIS?

The quality of the discussion about what sort of problem ISIS poses to the United States has been unsurprisingly poor, given who is framing it. All Americans have been appalled by the grotesque killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two American hostages held by the Islamic State. The justness of vengeance against their killers is something everyone agrees on.

But beyond that, the debate is stunning by its internal contradictions. Take, for example, the fact that the outgoing director of the National Counterterrorism Center recently announced that while ISIS “poses a direct and significant threat to us,” there is “no credible information [it] is planning to attack the US.” This echoed the judgment of both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which issued similar judgments last month.

At the same time as those charged with threat assessment are stating ISIS does not at present pose a threat to US territory, our political leaders are unanimous in judging that the United States needs to involve itself more deeply in the war taking place across the Syria-Iraq border. Shouldn’t we worry at least a bit that taking sides against it in that war makes the Islamic State more likely to target the United States at home, not less? (For their part, the barbarian murderers of Foley and Sotloff stated that their actions were intended to avenge prior US airstrikes on ISIS.) One could argue that trying to destroy ISIS is worth raising the risk they will target US territory, but shouldn’t the marginal impact of its likelihood of an attack on us here at least show up on the ledger?

Or take the recent statements of our politicians. President Obama famously remarked that he didn’t have a strategy for what to do about ISIS, even though his administration was already bombing them. On Meet the Press, Obama added his voice to those claiming there’s been no “immediate intelligence about threats to the homeland from ISIL.” Rather, according to Obama, “ISIL poses a broader threat because of its territorial ambitions in Iraq and Syria.”

Secretary of State Kerry offered some thoughts on ISIS last week, in which he made clear the administration’s desired end-state: “destroy ISIL”:

these guys are not 10 feet tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks. And we have the technology, we have the know-how. What we need is obviously the willpower to make certain that we are steady and stay at this.

There is no contain policy for ISIL. They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us…

Two points here. First, if ISIS is in fact as Kerry describes it—a group that isn’t 10 feet tall, a group that isn’t as disciplined or organized as everybody thinks, and a group that is really a quasi state with grandiose objectives—then why isn’t containment a viable option? Grandiose objectives are hard to obtain even for actors who are disciplined and well-organized, even those that are 10 feet tall. So why isn’t ISIS—which Kerry says isn’t so powerful but has ambitious objectives—likely to burn out like so many of its predecessor groups have?

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