By Matt Purple
What considerations should the United States take in its approach to Syria? There are many, but undergirding all of them is a single basic proposition: sticking it to Assad isn’t worth starting a war with Russia. Russia isn’t the Soviet Union, but it isn’t Iraq’s rag-tag army either. Such a great-powers conflict, which could kill tens of millions of people, is a horrible idea under almost any circumstance.
And yet, if there’s one thing that unites the Washington foreign policy establishment right now, it’s that we need another regime change campaign, this time in Syria, a unnecessary, dangerous escalation. I used to worry we were sleepwalking towards war with Russia. Now we seem to be outright lunging.
First, over to a recent Washington Post article featuring quotes from several Washington foreign policy experts, all of whom are in agreement that the Obama administration hasn’t been sufficiently belligerent in its approach to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. This is a “consensus,” the Post reports, backed up by a number of studies from think tanks like the well-mannered Brookings Institution, which “propose limited American airstrikes with cruise missiles to punish Assad if he continues to attack civilians.”
The problem is that Syria is a cauldron of fractious groups, and attempts to attack just one often result in collateral damage against others. This was demonstrated recently when an American bomb intended for ISIS fighters accidentally wiped out dozens of Syrian soldiers. Given how shoulder-to-shoulder Syrian and Russian forces currently are, a missile strike on the former could easily result in casualties among the latter. Wars have been started over less.
The other brilliant idea cheered on by the think tanks is a safe zone in Syria, where civilians under attack by the Assad regime or ISIS could seek refuge under the aegis of the American military. Hillary Clinton supports this, as do many D.C. mandarins for whom it’s become the new equivalent of economic sanctions, an easy and verbally digestible fix for a convoluted foreign problem. Their mindset is akin to one of those overhead computer strategy games: just point and click, and there’s your safe zone!
Back on planet Earth, establishing a safe zone will require a generous military commitment, between 15,000 to 30,000 ground troops, according to a Pentagon estimate that was provided to John Kerry. Russia is currently operating a latticework of S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems on the ground in Syria, which will need to be neutralized (or at least pacified). After that’s somehow done, we’ll have to secure a sprawling area with adequate ground support and air defenses of our own, and then ship in enough economic aid to accommodate displaced Syrians, lest our safe zone devolve into squalor.
This isn’t a panacea; it’s a massive deployment, war in Syria by the back front door, a new nation-building commitment that will cost billions while the national debt hurtles through the treetops. It’s also a hazardous prelude to a greater conflict. As one anonymous senior foreign policy official told the Post: “You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against the Russians.” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford has said outright that attempts to control Syrian airspace “would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia.”
Vladimir Putin has taken great risks in Syria, barging in and elbowing many of the key players, even edging his aircraft into Turkish airspace where one of them was ultimately shot down. Why is he behaving so brazenly? One reason is he’s been emboldened by President Obama’s discombobulated “red line” strategy. Another—far more important—is that Russia’s interests in the Syrian conflict are weightier than ours are, from the Tartus naval facility to the possibility of a lucrative oil pipeline to Putin’s need for an overseas conflict that will keep his people in line. The Tartus base is especially relevant: it’s one of Russia’s very few foreign military installations and its only naval refueling point in the Mediterranean.
That means the Russians, however much President Obama might stamp his feet, are always going to cling tighter to Syria than we will, and faced with American military aggression, they might very well respond in kind. We’d be insane to take such a pointless risk, yet this is exactly what our foreign policy graybeards are recommending. And the Post article is only the latest documenting the endless Washington whispers for further escalation.
It’s the American public—economically beleaguered and fed up with wars that don’t advance or protect America’s vital national interests—who are the wiser on this one. D.C. should listen to them before it gets a lot of our people killed and adds more to our $20 trillion national debt.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on October 26, 2016. Read more HERE.