As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.
This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”
Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:
“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”
Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about. Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home. Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.
One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). One may think they are winning while actually losing. The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines. It was the wrong measure. The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them. The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.
Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things. One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.
The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over. As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.” We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over. This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.
In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq. In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught. ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria. Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.
Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact. They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests. The issues are complicated and varied. Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised. As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.” That has strategic implications. Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation. If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”
That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw. If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.
Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home. But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies. Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward. We can lead or get out of the way. It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.
In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements. The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time. No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so. Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.
Syria is a particularly knotty problem. Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country. The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them. Borders in the desert are very fluid. It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime. We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished. So we are in Syria. What does that mean?
In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card. The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.
It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory. Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.
The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict. All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.” Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war. In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.
And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries? Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February? What? You didn’t hear about that? Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it? It was no “accident.” Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions. According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base. The attack continued. U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed. Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.
To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS. Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families. The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.
And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.
Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean? Troops? Not going to happen. Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from? Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.
The president wants “other nations” to take over. The last time I looked, they are doing so. Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent was the U.S. We were not invited to the talks. No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria. That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.
After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime. A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him. The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.
In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds. And they are a NATO ally.
It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower. The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern. When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be. Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it. Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.
There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan. We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow. We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.
In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars. Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century. At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be. There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues. The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure. They are not fail proof. There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.
There is also a “wrong” answer. That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it. It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.
War is nasty and complicated. We are facing new challenges in real time. Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed. Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.