Foreign Policy

Doomed to repeat? How Syria could become Trump’s Somalia


In many ways, the Trump era seems unprecedented. One example of this White House’s noteworthy changes to governing is its approach to military strategic and operational oversight. According to press reporting the administration has handed decisions about operations, deployments, and troop levels over to Defense Secretary James Mattis and his combatant commanders.

But even when an administration tries to break new ground, history has a way of repeating itself. And past White House teams have experienced the political and strategic risks of inattention to operational details.

In 1993, the Clinton administration inherited a U.S. deployment to the failed state of Somalia. More than 25,000 American troops were on the Horn of Africa to support a U.N. humanitarian assistance mission.

{mosads}The new National Security Council was focused on others areas of the world and left the management of operations to the Pentagon. The mission had been formally handed off to the United Nations, and even though it had shifted from aid delivery to targeting the forces of a warlord named Mohammed Farah Aideed, the White House believed things were going smoothly. Yet if managers in Washington had inquired further, they would have discovered a situation that was escalating and a mission that had expanded well beyond its original objectives.

As the U.N. became increasingly aggressive, Somalis began to resist all foreign actors regardless of their intentions. Nevertheless administration officials at the top of the chain of command remained satisfied that the deployment was winding down and it was unnecessary to revisit U.S. policy.

Even when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin asked the White House for guidance about the commander’s request for more forces, he could not get through to anyone and ended up approving the deployment without the benefit of interagency debate. Given the ruthless increase in Aideed’s resistance, the U.S. needed greater force protection to continue supporting the U.N. It made sense tactically. But what strategy was Washington pursuing?

The operational outcome is infamous and engendered serious domestic political consequences. On October 3, 1993, U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Forces experienced far more resistance than they anticipated during a routine raid. In a battle that stretched over two days, 18 Americans and as many as 1,000 Somalis died in the streets of Mogadishu. Both congressional and public outrage was prompt and severe. And with little in the way of strategic purpose, administration officials were at a loss for what to tell them.

A policy that had seemed like a straightforward military mission just days prior was suddenly mired in strategic and political confusion.

Could the Trump team be backing into its own Mogadishu moment? In Syria, the U.S. military is once again in the lead for executing a mission without a strategy, and has been delegated most of the day-to-day responsibility for monitoring their own progress. Although the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on April 4 garnered intense scrutiny and a swift tactical response from the White House, Assad continues to use conventional weapons to target civilians and to employ starvation and population displacement as part of his campaign of terror.

Moreover, Russia has expressed its forceful opposition to any future such U.S. strikes. Given the wide range of viewpoints expressed by members of the administration before and after the U.S. missile strike, it is evident that strategic guidelines for military force employment, let alone a broader strategy for the region, are still not in place.

What President Trump has done is task Secretary Mattis with developing an initial plan for the “rapid defeat” of the Islamic State (ISIS). Certainly, the United States has compelling reasons to press ahead to dislodge the Islamic State from it self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Raqqa, and more broadly in eastern Syria and western Iraq. The U.S. military is the executor of the ground operations and airstrikes that will eliminate immediate ISIS targets. However, political and strategic tradeoffs loom in pursuing the most rapid course to clearing ISIS targets, and substantial questions remain unanswered in terms of what follows ISIS in cleared areas.

Adding to the complexity, U.S. ally Turkey has mounted both political and military opposition to U.S. support for Kurdish partners in northern Syria, striking Kurdish targets in both Syria and Iraq on April 25 near U.S. forces operating in the area with less than an hour’s notice.

U.S. Central Command strongly voiced its concern about the strikes against U.S. Kurdish partners, which have been instrumental in fighting ISIS. Finding a pathway forward with Turkey to address its concerns about Kurdish activities in Syria and Iraq linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will require diplomacy and other tools outside of the U.S. military’s purview. Otherwise, relations with a key NATO ally will continue to fray and affect other U.S. priorities in the Middle East and Europe, and U.S. forces could be at risk should Turkey take further military action.

Taking additional military steps in Syria — whether to curb Assad’s brutal tactics, protect civilians, or maintain a focus on ISIS and al-Qaida alone — must be folded into a holistic framework that includes diplomatic coercion, economic pressure, and support for local governance, security, and development in Syria. In any case, the risks of miscalculation are real. An overreliance on the U.S. military tool will not address the drivers of the Syrian conflict, and inattentiveness on the part of the administration could risk military escalation with Russia and Iran, exposing U.S. forces in Syria to greater danger.

Given the stakes, these issues merit broader U.S. national security policy scrutiny beyond the operational purview of the Department of Defense. Secretary Mattis undoubtedly has raised these same questions. But there is only so much that a secretary of defense can do to address political and strategic questions in the absence of a broader U.S. strategy or planning for the future of Syria.

President Obama was roundly criticized for lacking such a strategy — including by now-President Trump. But his NSC could not be accused of inattention. Today, the White House lacks both a strategy and sufficient focus on the problem, both elements that contributed to the disaster in Mogadishu.

In some ways, the analogy is unfair. Somalia was a comparatively low-priority country in a region peripheral to U.S. interests at a time when state-centric geopolitics was at its nadir. Syria is in a region critical to U.S. and international security, with implications for the balance of global power.

But the higher stakes in Syria are precisely why a Somalia-like failure of imagination could have grave consequences. Events can unravel not because the military is doing its job poorly, but because civilian overseers have not pledged themselves to a politically sustainable foreign policy. A few tactical mistakes in Mogadishu dovetailed with the political orphaning of a mission that would take many more resources than one Ranger battalion could ever supply.

In Syria, a singular operational focus on countering WMD or terrorism, albeit important objectives, ignores the complexity of overlapping conflicts with geostrategic implications that will require multifaceted solutions beyond which the U.S. military can address alone.

Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where she focuses on civil-military relations and African security issues.

Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program (ISP). Her research focuses on U.S. defense policy in the Middle East, global U.S. defense strategy and policy, and security cooperation with U.S. allies and partners. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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