The Syrian Civil War is an armed conflict that only seems to become bloodier and bloodier. It is a war that only seems to grow more and more complex as conflicting world and regional powers use Syria to hash out their conflicting interests. The Syrian Civil War is a civil war and a proxy war. Unlike the bipolar conflict of the US Civil War, the Syrian Civil War is a multipolar conflict, which makes it much more complicated and much like the Iraq War. Similar to the Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War is also a war against terrorists. Unlike the Iraq War, two world powers, along with a whole host of regional powers with ulterior motives, have intervened in the conflict. With the conflict threatening to spill out of the Syrian territory and around the world, the International Community is struggling to find a solution. It must, however, understand that the Syrian Civil War is a total war.
Since the end of the second World War, the International Community has shunned the very notion of a total war. Under the premise of a total war, there is no difference between military targets and civil targets. Two warring parties engaged in a total war will fight until the other side is unable to fight, which tends to devastate both sides. In many respects, the Cold War was largely the product of an effort to avoid the potential of a total war in an new era of nuclear weapons. Instead of fighting each other, the United States and Russia relied on a series of proxy wars that the two world powers abandon whenever their political goals were met. The International Community set the rules on how military forces could act in these conflicts and pretended they were “limited wars” that did not totally devastate their host nations.
Reflecting on the destruction and longevity of the Vietnam War for the US and the Soviet–Afghan War for Russia, world powers may have been able to avoid entangling themselves in a total war, yet there was never truly such a thing as a limited war. Even after WWII and an unprecedented age of global stability, which was mistaken for age of peace, total wars raged on. The Peoples of the developed world embraced the delusion of limited war, because the conflicts of Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa had no impact on their lives. The suffering of those in the underdeveloped and developing world could be ignored or written off as the product of economic dysfunction when Western philanthropists took notice of their plight. The so-called proxy wars of the US, NATO, Russia, and others were, however, fought by those who firmly believed in total war and the tactics of total war.
Where the US eventually grew too annoyed by the Vietnam War to continue and left the conflict for local belligerents to hash out, the US beat back the belligerents of the Iraq War into their corners then jumped ship before the corrupt Iraqi government and armed forces could lose control of Iraq’s security. Victory was, however, never truly achieved in Iraq. The insurgents were never truly beaten, they never truly gave up, and they never achieved what they wanted. The insurgents basically took a break from fighting before reemerging within the threat of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War. Nonetheless, the Iraq War was fought in such a way that the world did not have to admit it was a total war. The Syria War, in contrast, cannot be seen as anything other than a total war. Unfortunately, the world either no longer knows how to win a total war or has no will to fight a total war.
With the direct support of the Russian and Iranian military, the forces of Bashar al-Assad have been able to stave off a defeat and recapture a great deal of the territory it lot. It is, of course, questionable as to whether or not Assad’s forces can secure the territory they control and how much Russian aid will be needed in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, US-backed rebels have abandoned their fight against the Islamic State as US ally and NATO member Turkey has escalated its fight against Kurdish factions, including US-backed forces. Emboldened by their gains, pro-Assad and Russian-connected forces have been amassing near and clashing with US-backed forces. The risk of a regional or global escalation is rising. In a total war, the only rule is “might makes right.” Force is the only means of constraining the actions of others. The only way to control a war like the Syrian Civil War is to be able and willing to use force to establish boundaries.
With that in mind, the Russian military is already entangled in the Syrian Civil War while the US would be wise to avoid such costly entanglement and allow Russia to bear the burden. Unfortunately, there is no international solution to end the Syrian Civil War nor a straightforward solution to contain it. As more and more nations add their conflicting interests to the war, it becomes harder and harder to stop the violence. What the International Community can do is establish limits on the behavior of warring factions. It can do this by identifying actual objectives in Syria, e.g. prevent the targeting and killing of civilians, prevent the escalation of the conflict by supporting the enforcement of countries, and so on, then support the enforcement of those goals. If the US-led Coalition, for example, bombs pro-Assad forces encroaching on US-backed forces and/or targets civilians, the world needs to support that defensive action. Using force is risky, and can be used as an excuse, but it is the only way to establish boundaries in a total war.
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