Syria and the Scope of the “National Interest”

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it would be sending a small number of Special Operations forces to Syria. These troops will “work with resistance forces battling the Islamic State in northern Syria but will not engage in direct combat.” The deployment is open-ended and will be accompanied by the movement of attack planes and fighter jets to Turkey to support ground operations in Syria.  (Why we’re sending the fighters is unclear—are we worried about Russian planes? The Islamic State certainly won’t be launching its own fighters anytime soon.)

Sigh. This is a terrible idea and it makes Obama look somewhat ridiculous after having promised at least 8 times not to send ground troops to Syria. I wish I could say that this move surprised me.  I had been hoping that we would have the good sense to avoid further escalation in Syria, but that would have required a degree of coherence and prudence on foreign policy from an administration that has demonstrated itself to be incapable of such behavior.

This strategy will not work. First of all, who will these troops even advise? We have already discussed the abysmal failure of the plan to train rebel forces. The United States has claimed that we don’t like Assad’s regime, and we don’t like IS and al-Qaeda affiliates for obvious reasons, so that leaves…who, exactly? Do we really think the Kurds could win this fight and successfully govern Syria when the smoke clears?

Second, and more importantly: sending 50 advisers will have no real impact on anything that happens in Syria, except for possibly prolonging the fighting.  There is a nasty sectarian conflict unfolding on the ground over who will govern Syria, and we are not going to resolve that conflict by sending 50 advisers and a few aircraft. Remember how well our plans for Iraq went? Even after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, deploying more than one hundred thousand troops, and sacrificing the lives of thousands of Americans, Iraq remains the most dangerous country in the world for civilians. (In case you’re wondering, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria and Pakistan make up the rest of the top 5.)

But sure, send 50 advisers—what’s the worst that could happen? The worst that could happen is that this opens the door for additional commitments in Syria without having any positive impact on the fighting (and possibly making it worse). At this point, the best-case scenario is that the advisers have no impact on the fighting and come home after a few months, having achieved…a political victory for Obama? That seems unlikely, given that both Democrats and Republicans are criticizing this strategy.  I’m not sure what the Obama administration hopes to gain from this.

What this policy does highlight, however, is the extent to which our conception of the “national interest” and what it includes has become so bloated as to be essentially meaningless. Why does it matter to the United States who governs Syria? Why have we now defined the United States’ national interest as essentially “anything that happens anywhere?” We have become so caught up in our self-image as the world’s liberal policeman and the world’s greatest military power that we now seem to believe that we can and should dictate the outcome of any fight anywhere in the world. Our experiences in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan demonstrate that our ability to control events in other countries is much, much more limited than we would like to believe, and yet we continue to insert ourselves into these fights (while promising that our efforts will be limited) and we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that leaving a few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan will result in a lasting and democratic peace there.

“But what about the people who are suffering in Syria?” you say. “Isn’t it in our interest to help them?” I hate to break it to you, but there are people suffering at the hands of their own governments or as the result of domestic unrest all over the world. The fact that this is true does not mean that it is the responsibility of the United States to fix those problems, and intervening with such limited force as we are using in Syria can often have the unintended effect of prolonging the fighting, i.e., increasing net suffering. It is the responsibility of the United States government and the U.S. military to protect the United States and its citizens.  There are plenty of people suffering here in the United States, and I would rather spend our resources on them than on another limited intervention in the Middle East that will at best have no impact on total human suffering in Syria and at worst drag us into another bloody and costly quagmire.

Peace or Justice in Syria?

Let’s follow up on last week’s post about the conflict in Syria. I briefly discussed France’s decision to launch air strikes against IS targets; the following day, we learned that Russia has entered the fray and begun bombing Syria, too. Predictably, the US reaction has been quite negative. The Pentagon asserted that the strategy was “doomed to failure.” There also seems to be some confusion over whether the Russian strikes are targeting IS specifically or anti-Assad forces in general. The New York Times reported on October 1 that Russia’s targets included at least one of the rebel groups trained by the CIA (remember them from our discussion last week?). American officials maintain that the strikes targeted rebel groups fighting government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally.

The negative reaction from the United States is no surprise—after all, we want to be the only ones running around bombing the bad guys whenever we feel like it. And apparently we think that funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and military training into the conflict (the U.S. plan to date) is acceptable, but directly and openly using force to influence the outcome of the conflict is not.

But I digress. John Kerry has said that the United States is open to working with Russia on ending the conflict, but only “under amenable terms,” which presumably means some type of negotiated settlement preferred by the United States.  I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces by Richard K. Betts, “The Delusion of Impartial Intervention.”[1] It was written during the Balkan crises of the 1990s, but it is as relevant today as it was then. Betts argues that, although justice and peace are desirable, they don’t always coincide. If your primary goal is peace, i.e., an end to violence, you may have to accept a peace that is imperfect from the standpoint of justice; conversely, the pursuit of justice and fairness can hinder efforts to end violent conflict. It might offend our sensibilities, but if our primary goal is ending violence, then we should back the stronger side in the conflict and enable it to defeat the weaker.  What usually happens, however, is that we intervene on the side of the weak, which prolongs the fighting unless the intervention is backed with enough force that it can overwhelm the capabilities of all the belligerents.

This may shock and offend the well-informed American reader, in part because much of the rhetoric attached to American foreign policy these days asserts that the United States is omnipotent and should be able to impose its will on any and all outcomes in international politics. This in turn leads us to expect that we should be able to force a “just” solution to the fighting in Syria. Given the amount of resources the United States is willing to commit (and I think we have already committed too many), the truth is that we are long past the point where we can achieve both peace and justice in Syria. Given a choice between the two, the more humane option and the one most likely to minimize the total suffering of the Syrian people may be to seek peace, even a peace that is imperfect and unjust. Assad is a nasty guy and his regime has done some terrible things (and probably will again), but facilitating “regime change” there would leave us with a power vacuum and no end to IS atrocities. Russia’s effort to reinforce Assad’s power and to help him wipe out opposition forces may not fit neatly with our ideals, but the alternative—a continuation to the violence and/or capture of the state apparatus by IS forces—would probably be worse.

[1] Foreign Affairs 73, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 1994): 20-33.

Training to Fail in Syria

In a hearing with the Senate armed services committee earlier this month, General Loyd Austin, the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), revealed that a $500 million program to train Syrians to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria produced only “four or five” active fighters. The plan unveiled in late 2014 to train local forces on the ground in Syria to fight IS was projected to have trained about 5,000 fighters by now. A Pentagon official assured the Senators that between 100 and 120 fighters are currently “getting terrific training,” but the committee was unimpressed.

It should be no surprise that this ill-conceived effort failed. Frankly, I’m surprised they could boast even four or five fighters at this point. Just last week, the Guardian reported that a Syrian rebel commander allied with the United States defected and gave six trucks and ammunition to the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The unit had returned from US-led training in Turkey only days before; the Department of Defense asserts that the report of the defection and missing equipment is incorrect.

The CIA has been funneling weapons into the region since at least 2013. Have we learned nothing from our efforts to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Or from our more recent efforts to equip the Iraqi Army—a favorite target for looting by IS?

Let’s be clear: I do not think that the United States should be launching a major military operation to try to “stabilize” Syria. Are people being subjected to immense suffering there? Yes, they are—but it’s not clear who the “good” guys are, given that the Syrian regime has been just as brutal as IS in some cases. Given that a major intervention is not on the table, we should stay out of it. Flowing more weapons into the region can only prolong the fighting and thus the suffering of innocent civilians. Sending in some minor peacekeeping force to safeguard refugee camps won’t work, either—without a significant presence and comprehensive mandate to use force (unlikely in multinational peacekeeping operations), the camps can only be an easy target for the fighters.  Nor should we expect air strikes to work, either; France launched its first strikes against IS in Syria this week and I don’t expect them to have much of an impact, either.

I think this plan for arming the Syrian rebels reflects the Obama administration’s belief that it must be seen to “do something” in the face of the chaos in Syria. Given that there is no national will for a major intervention (rightly so, I think), the options are rather limited. Training rebels and supplying arms seems like the goldilocks solution, if you will: taking action, but action that’s relatively cheap, poses little to no risk to American military personnel, makes the administration look good if for some reason it succeeds, and provides an easy escape hatch if and when it fails. We’ll have to see how the situation unfolds over the coming months, but I don’t expect a resolution any time soon.