The 'kaleidoscopic' conflict that is Syria

“It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination and humility to grasp the phenomenon of [ISIS]. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.” — Anonymous, the New York Review of Books, Aug. 13, 2015.

In the information age, the concept of warfare and conflict are changing and shifting. Industrial-age warfare lingers, but fades as a possibility. Twentieth-century wars most likely are not the future of conflict. The new high ground is cyberspace. The battles of the 21st century largely will be fought on the World Wide Web.

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Yet human conflict will continue. It is in our nature. Military historian John Keegan stated simply that the history of war is the history of mankind, and the history of mankind is war. We never will “buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” as the creators of the 1971 Coca-Cola commercial imagined. As comedian and social critic George Carlin said: "Life is tough, then you die.”

Conflict has evolved from the agricultural age, when armies stood in a field, toe to toe, beating and striking one another until one army yielded and left the field. In the industrial age, conflict became more deadly, the weapons systems more anonymous and destructive. Civilian populations were at risk and destroyed wholesale. In the information age, conflict became more precise, though civilians still pay the ultimate price.

Throughout the 20th century, mankind tried to control the horror of war through law and, towards the end of that bloody century, to hold accountable heads of state who caused conflict, particularly when they targeted their own citizens. The age of accountability, which started at Nuremberg and rose to prominence over the past 25 years, also has begun to lose its effectiveness in securing international peace and security. The dirty little wars in this age will be fought in dark corners of the world, where the parties will not follow the laws of armed conflict.  

Nearly two decades into this century, conflict has almost reverted to the agricultural age — bloody, toe to toe, lawless.  

Modern armies are not trained for this type of warfare. These dirty little wars have become “kaleidoscopic” in nature, and the winding-down conflict in Syria is a prime example of how bizarre conflict has become. At one point in Syria, the United States was fighting one side, working with that same side to defeat a common enemy (ISIS), and providing military support to many of the various groups found in that conflict. We were shooting in every direction, being shot at by the very weapons we were supplying to the parties to the conflict. How crazy is that!

To add to the confusion, the military situation completely changed on a daily — and surely a weekly — basis. Where one thing changed, everything changed; hence, the description that warfare had become kaleidoscopic.

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None of the doctrinal norms in planning for future conflicts applies. We cannot anticipate what the next dirty little war will look like, which causes strain to the deliberate planning process within the Department of Defense. Syria stressed our systems. Very little that our various services were capable of bringing to the battlefield applied or were effective. On any given day  at the height of the Syrian conflict, no one could predict what would happen next. Commanders and their planners were not just shooting in every direction, we also did not know what our objectives were or what the end-state would be. It remains so even today.

Yes, the mutual foe ISIS is on the ropes and could be militarily defeated in this conflict, but they are far from gone. They will slip into the hills, into cyberspace, to regroup and attack somewhere again. The West is too arrogant or too baffled to admit they do not have a clue about what to do next. Certainly, they cannot predict and plan for what the next conflict with ISIS, or any other adversary, may look like.

Sadly, many legal norms have been thrown out. Centuries of the rules of war, codified now in international humanitarian law, anchored by the Geneva Conventions, are not followed. The result is horrific — just look at the eight-year tragedy that is the Syrian conflict. This is the future of conflict.

Overlaid on this kaleidoscopic landscape is the possible return to industrial-age conflict as tensions between the United States and Russia increase. Vladimir Putin stated recently that Russia is ready for another “Cuban Missile Crisis.” We have even shaken the nuclear weapon tree by the United States walking away from the  Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

So what we are seeing in the kaleidoscopic scenario is all three types of human conflict potentially playing out. Military planners have a huge challenge ahead. Caveat: Don’t cling to the past to plan for the future, as nations have done with their planning for decades. Stay nimble, stay flexible, and be humble enough to admit we are not prepared to face dirty little wars, because we have no idea what will happen next.

We would do well to pay heed to these words by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his book, “Team of Teams”:

“In the time it took us to move a plan from creation to approval, the battlefield for which the plan had been devised would have changed. By the time it could be implemented, the plan — however ingenious in its initial design — was often irrelevant. The key lies in shifting our focus from predicting to reconfiguring. By embracing humility — recognizing the inevitability of surprises and unknowns — and concentrating on systems that can survive and indeed benefit from such surprises, we can triumph over volatility.”

David M. Crane served as the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He served more than 30 years in the U.S. government, in positions including senior inspector general, Department of Defense, and assistant general counsel of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is a professor and distinguished scholar in residence at Syracuse University College of Law.