The Obama Administration’s policies toward Syria and the Arab Spring Era Middle East have attracted many detractors. Over fifty US State Department Officials recently joined in the criticism by utilizing a so-called dissent channel cable that calls on the Administration to use force against Syrian President Basher Al-Assad’s military forces. Dissent is a necessary and productive means of developing a potential solution when the status quo offers no hope of success. Although the current diplomatic approach is unlikely to resolve the Syrian Civil War or the Syrian Refugee Crisis, however, there is much to be considered.
First and foremost, neither the Obama Administration nor a Clinton Administration or a Trump Administration can allow the United States to be pulled into another unwinnable war as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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. Thanks to Russian intervention in Syria, which has undermined Western-backed factions, there is increased pressure on the Obama Administration to counter Russian influence.
Countering Russian influence is the worst possible reason to escalate US intervention in Syria. Intervention against the Assad regime, because "[t]he moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable,'' is just as unwise. Because there is a chance the confrontational measures being taken to discourage Russian hostility in the Ukraine Crisis and Chinese aggression in South China Sea Crisis could eventually spark a global conflict between major world powers, committing US forces to be bogged down in Syria 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. Meanwhile, 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 mutually destructive policies.
Middle East security hinges on the ability of regional powers to overcome traditional and cultural conflicts in order to focus on common threats to the national security of all Middle Eastern nations. What this means is that traditional revivals, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, must learn to solve conflicts through diplomatic channels. In addressing dissent and civil unrest, governments must learn to rely on political engagement as an alternative to violent crackdowns. If they do not, they will continue to inspire violence. Unfortunately, the crescendoing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not bode well.
In all honesty, Middle Eastern powers would prefer the US, its Western allies, and Russia to launch massive military campaigns to eliminate the Islamic State for them. Over-subsidizing the regional security by defeating the common enemy of all Middle Eastern nations and Peoples for them is, however, counterproductive in the long-term. Relying on the West to defeat the Islamic States leaves regional powers the room to continue their traditional rivalries and their destabilizing support of militant groups. It also allows Middle Eastern governments to avoid civil engagement in favor of crackdowns against civil discontent under the guise of anti-terrorism initiatives.
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 US taxpayer dollars, national security, and the lives of US troops.
As demonstrated by the inability of the Iraqi army to function without the guidance and support of the US military in post-war Iraq, an overreliance on foreign assistance will lead to disaster when the long drawn out commitment of foreign blood and treasure is exhausted. Finally, it is important to remember that the Islamic State is a far more pressing concern for those in Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. The United States does have interests in Syria, specifically ensuring the Islamic State does not become a far more serious threat to the US, but America’s role in the war against the Islamic State is a support role.
With all that in mind, air support can give ground forces the edge needed to defeat insurgents. As US State Department dissenters have suggested, the "judicious use of standoff and air weapons" may be particularly helpful in disarming Assad’s forces, thus ending their attacks on civilian populations without overcoming US military resources. 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 are, however, components of a support role.
Unfortunately, this discussion comes long after the Russia intervention on behalf of the Assad Regime, which means US attacks on Syrian forces could mean a war between the US and Russia. One potential solution would be to reinstate the so-called “cession of hostilities” enforced by the US on the rebel-side of Syria and by the Russia on the Assad-side of Syria. During events like the Aleppo Offensive in late April and early May, US strikes against Assad forces would have given moderate rebel forces and fleeing civilians shelter from Assad’s assaults. As Russia has not shown any level of restrain when bombing US-backed rebels, such a policy is reasonable.
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