Why the US remains mired in Syria’s mayhem

Why the US remains mired in Syria’s mayhem
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Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime forces and Russia are about to pounce on Idlib province in Syria.  The military campaign is part of the Assad regime’s strategy to crush the opposition forces, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been fighting against Assad’s forces since the civil war broke out in 2011. However, the Assad regime has made steady gains in the battlefields since Russia entered the fray and, along with Iran, the troika have launched numerous devastating onslaughts against foes and civilians alike, including with globally-banned chemical weapons.

In the midst of all the military campaigns and mind-boggling mix of militias are a contingent of U.S. forces who train and assist fighters targeting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. With the troika posturing for the next major military attack in Idlib, the global community — Western powers, in particular — worries about chemical weapons. For the United States, there is added worry about how the Russian and Syrian forces would delineate between their enemies and American troops on the ground.  

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The bottom line is that no one — not the troika, nor the United States — is interested in allowing all-out war to break out. The United States has been focused on eliminating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and not getting tangled up in the anti-Assad quagmire, despite President Obama’s strong statements, beginning in 2011, calling on Assad to step down. U.S. firepower has taken out dozens of Russian mercenaries recently, but generally speaking, the United States and Russia communicate with each other in war zones to deconflict their troop movements and presence and avoid mutual casualties.

When a David fights a Goliath, usually there is no concern for the Goliath about casualties. But, when two Goliaths could stumble into a war against each other, each goes out of its way to prevent such a scenario. Russia and the United States are the two Goliaths operating in Syria, albeit with distinctly different missions, goals and purposes.

There are conflicting accounts of the April 2017 U.S. airstrike against military targets in Syria in response to Assad’s chemical weapons attacks against civilians. According to an April 6, 2017,  CNBC article, “Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in an official statement: ‘Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.’” The United States hit an airfield taking out some aircraft and a runway, but “no people were targeted, no Russians were targeted.”  

The United States is not likely to go to full-scale war in Syria, and even if the Pentagon is prepared to do so, domestic politics and public opinion in the United States are not supportive of such ventures, especially following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

U.S. national interests have been narrowly focused on counter-terrorism in the region. In addition, U.S. strategies pertaining to the Middle East have sought to strengthen the capabilities of U.S. partners, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, to be more self-sufficient when it comes to national and regional security. These are security cooperation strategies, which are mentioned in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Posture Statement, described as “Prepare – Pursue – Prevail”:

"Preparing in advance of crises creates decision space for leaders and allows for the responsible and effective employment of resources and forces. Effective preparation enables CENTCOM to compete with the other major actors in the region through strengthening alliances and partnerships. Pursuing opportunities ensures we seize and maintain the initiative as we meet each of the challenges in our complex region. We also retain the flexibility to effectively deter threats, preferably short of military force. We constantly seek to prevail in conflict, winning the current fight and preparing for the next challenge.”

Public opinion in the United States pertaining to U.S. military intervention generally calls for “restraint,” rather than proactive deployments that tend to overstretch American resources and human capital. When developments in the Middle East directly threaten the United States, American citizens and related interests, then opinions tend to lean towards supporting action against adversaries. However, despite U.S. military capabilities, which remain unmatched, and despite compassion for civilians suffering in wars and conflicts in the region, most Americans seem to take a cautious approach to intervention.

The pendulum has swung toward less direct intervention and more diplomacy, or, in the case of the Trump administration, conducting only select targeted airstrikes against airstrips and military infrastructure in Syria to illustrate the United States’ steadfastness in responding punitively for the regime’s use of chemical weapons. This appears to have been primarily to show up the Obama administration’s “red line fiasco.”

However, in terms of exacting substantive results in deterring the Assad regime and its allies — or, for that matter, articulating a clear set of goals for the United States in Syria — the Trump administration remains stuck in the fog of war. The only clarity is the consistent goal of going after the Islamic State and preventing its resurgence. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE is known to flip flop on positions he has taken, even regarding Syria. Jonah Shepp reports in the March 30, 2018, New York Magazine article that at an Ohio rally President Trump boasted: “By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”

Shepp concludes, “Much as Obama discovered that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were much harder to end than they had been to start, Trump may soon find that our involvement in Syria, regardless of its merits, is not easily reversed.” Perhaps that is why the United States has maintained a laser focus on going after the Islamic State, rather than adding other targets to the list in Syria. Therefore, the campaign in Idlib is likely to be business as usual.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]