America’s Syrian Folly

By Charles V. Peña

According to the Pentagon, the Syrian Air Force dropped bombs in Hasaka where U.S. Special Operations forces were operating at the time. According to Captain Jeff Davis, the Syrians would be "well advised" not to interfere with coalition forces on the ground in the future. But why are U.S. forces supporting Kurdish forces in Syria and thereby placed at risk to being bombed? Rather, it is the United States who should be “well advised” not to interfere in Syria.

There are two reasons why the U.S. military is engaged in Syria: (1) ISIS and (2) Bashar Assad.

Even though President Obama has acknowledged that ISIS is not an existential threat to the U.S., he insists on trying to destroy it. That means U.S. airstrikes in Syria – more than 4,500 since the U.S. decision in 2014 to take on ISIS. But despite ISIS being a threat to the Assad regime in Syria, the U.S. is loath to let Syria deal with ISIS as it sees fit. Why? Because the Obama administration’s stated goal is regime change in Damascus – despite the fact that Syria is not a military or terrorist threat to the United States. If that sounds like déjà vu all over again, it should. It’s simply a replay of the decision to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But unlike the neoconservatives of the Bush administration, the liberal internationalists of the Obama administration believe they can accomplish regime change by arming rebels who oppose Assad. For all their differences, liberal internationalists and neoconservatives are very much the same.

Certainly, Bashar Assad is a thug – just as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević were also thugs (and also on the receiving end of U.S. military intervention). But being a thug is not the same thing as being a threat to U.S. national security, which should be the sole criteria for employing U.S. military force. To be sure, Assad is a threat to his own people – as demonstrated by his use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus in 2012 and Allepo in 2013. But it is not America’s responsibility to provide for other countries’ security or to protect their citizens.

Of course, that has not stopped presidents of all political stripes from using military force when U.S. national security isn’t at stake. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military force has been used at least a dozen times by five different administrations. But only once – Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – was it used as a result of a direct threat to U.S. national security.

There is also the issue of inconsistency and hypocrisy when it comes to U.S. military intervention. During the Clinton administration, we were all too willing intervene in Bosnia but more than reluctant to do the same in Rwanda. In both cases, U.S. national security was not in jeopardy – but in one European lives were threatened and in the other it was Africans.

But what if this time, everything goes according to plan—although history tells us it seldom, if ever, does? What if Assad deposed? There is no guarantee that will be better. In fact, it could be worse. We already know that opposition forces—that the U.S. is supporting— include elements of the Al Nusra Front that has links to al Qaeda. Al Nusra and another rebel group, Ahrar al Sham (which also has al Qaeda links), have recently been accused of torture and other human rights violations – the same accusations levied against Assad as one of the reasons for regime change.

Finally, there is the question of ISIS. Largely lost upon the architects of U.S. Syria policy is the fact that ISIS is the result of regime change. It was the decision to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq that created the conditions for the rise in 2004 of al Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually morphed to become ISIS.

So if history is any guide, regime change in Syria is likely to create a vacuum of instability to be filled by ISIS or the rise of yet another radical Islamic group.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.

This piece was originally published by Forbes on September 1, 2016. Read more HERE