Obama, “Mission Creep” Alert: America Must Avoid Entanglement and Overreach in the Syrian Civil War
The fight against the Islamic State has never been and will never be just about subduing the threat of the terrorist group. Already serving as a proxy war between the Saudi-led Coalition and Iran, the broader Syrian Civil War continues to grow increasingly complicated. Direct Russian military intervention in Syria has, of course, quickly redefined the conflict as a proxy war between the US and Russia. With the United States officially deploying limited special force combat troops into Syria, there are renewed concerns of mission creep and further entanglement in the Middle Eastern rivalries that are on display in the conflict.
American war hawks have long advocated for intervention on the ground in Syria and renewed commitment to the Iraq War, but the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars have made such a level of engagement unrealistic. Because there is a chance the confrontational measures being taken to discourage Russian hostility and Chinese aggression could eventually spark a global conflict between major world powers, committing US forces to be bogged down in Syria and Iraq is short-sighted and strategically foolish. Given instability in the global economy, the economic woes of the EU, Russia, China, Brazil, and the US in particular, the International Community must assist the unstable Arab Spring-era Middle East without over-committing limited resources while avoiding entanglement in traditional rivalries.
Thanks to Russian intervention in Syria, which has targeted Western-backed factions, there is increased pressure on the Obama Administration to counter “Russian influence.” The reason the Islamic State was able to emerge as the predominate threat in the region and has continued to thrive is that every country in region keeps trying to “balance” the influence of their revivals by engaging in destructive policies. The presence of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters in Syria has only prevented moderate groups from seizing power from the Assad regime, which would have allowed the fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist factions to take priority. Adding US ground forces into the mix, alongside Russian forces, will only lengthen the conflict and raise the risk of an armed US-Russian conflict.
Quite frankly, countering Russian influence is the worst possible reason to escalate US intervention in Syria and Iraq. If Russia and Iran do manage to avoid alienating major groups within Syria and Iraq any further than they already have, they may end up enjoying increased influence. The US has, however, learned from the Middle East that such costly influence easily evaporates while the modern world is one where countries are free to form multilateral relations with revivals of their closest allies. Except when Russia is attacking US allies, undermining US interests, or killing civilians, the US government has no reason to react to the Russian government sacrificing its own troops, misallocating its own money, and undermining its own national security by over committing to military intervention in Syria.
That said, the unfortunate reality is that terrorist groups like the Islamic State will continue to arise in the Middle East as long as the underlying issues behind destabilizing civil unrest and terrorism exist. Frankly, the Islamic State threat is far too vast for a handful of special force members to make a difference. What this means is that mission creep in the fight against the Islamic State is inevitable, unless the missions of foreign forces in the Middle East are limited to well-defined roles. Even if the Islamic State can be bombed out of existence or hunted down by special forces, other competing factions, including other nations, will emerge to become the predominate threat in the region.
This will prove to be true until national and sectarian rivals stop using extremists groups and tactics to undermine each other in the perpetual proxy wars of the region. Even though Middle Eastern powers have come to see the value of providing for their own regional security, warring factions continue to use armed conflicts and foreign intervention to perpetrate their agendas and undermine their revivals. Joining Turkey and Assad in their efforts to use the Islamic State threat as an opportunity to crush rivals is Iran. A
Furthermore, ground forces are the backbone of any anti-insurgent campaign, which is why Middle Eastern powers need to be committed to their own regional security. Unless native security forces are committed to defending their own homeland against threats, unless governments are committed to resolving conflicts with their neighbors and address the grievances of their own discontented Peoples, no counter-insurgency campaign can be successful. The blunt truth is that a failure to meet these conditions means foreign intervention will simply perpetuate the status quo at the cost of taxpayer dollars and national security.
In regards to the role of world powers like the United States and Russia, air support can give ground forces the edge needed to defeat insurgents. Strategic missions to free hostages, gather intelligence, and eliminate leadership can reduce the effectiveness of a terrorist group. Providing nonlethal aid and reluctantly supplying well-controlled arms is a way of ensuring a solid anti-insurgent campaign has what it needs to be successful. All of these services, however, are components of a support role. As demonstrated by the inability of the Iraqi army to function without the guidance and support of the US military, an overreliance on foreign assistance will lead to disaster when the long drawn out commitment of foreign blood and treasure is exhausted.
It is important to remember the Islamic State is a far more pressing concern for those in Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. The ongoing threat of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War has been framed as a failure of the Obama Administration, but it is not the role of the US to win this conflict nor is this conflict going to end quickly. The United States does have interests in Iraq and Syria, specially ensuring the Islamic State does not become a far more serious threat to the US. The world is eager to see the end of violence in Syria, but victory takes commitments and the International Community has truly done very little to actually resolve the Syrian Civil War until recently. In turn, the Obama Administration cannot allow itself to be pulled into another unwinnable war.
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