Core Interests Demand a Change of Syrian Policy

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (Ret.)

Last Sunday in Syria, a U.S. F18 shot down a regime fighter-bomber. The next day Syria’s ally, Russia, declared that it would consider any U.S. aircraft west of the Euphrates river as an enemy target subject to being shot down. The White House defiantly declared it would defend itself if attacked. Risking a war with a nuclear power over a Syrian policy that does not advance core American interests is foolhardy. History and an analysis of current events implores an immediate change in strategy. 

The overriding imperative for the U.S. Government is to ensure the security of the U.S. Homeland and its people abroad. Secondly, is to expand global trade and thereby grow the domestic U.S. economy. While fostering and encouraging the spread of democracy abroad remains a U.S. interest, it is not a core interest on par with the first two.  According to these criteria, our current Middle East and Syria policies require considerable and immediate adjustment.

The primary justification for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war is the requirement to destroy the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. To accomplish that goal, the Pentagon is supporting indigenous forces with airpower and select U.S. ground troops. But even if that goal were one day accomplished, it would neither solve the civil war nor remove the threat of Islamic terrorism to the United States. The region is a volatile, violent mix of a myriad of aggressive and competing interests.

Ansar al-Islam, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and numerous other violent Islamic terror groups will continue to operate in Syria and seek to expand globally, regardless of the Raqqa outcome. And yet some in the United States continue to believe that the security situation will stabilize there if ISIS is driven out of Raqqa.

Effective U.S. policy can only be formed with an acknowledgment of this highly complex, routinely shifting, volatile mix of competing forces. Even a cursory examination makes it abundantly clear that ISIS is only one of a myriad of factors at play in Syria and the greater Middle East, and even if they are completely destroyed– and the loss of Raqqa will not accomplish that objective– the cyclone of the remaining constituents will continue churning without pause. It is necessary, therefore, to step back and consider what are the true American national security interests in the region and decide what policies have the best chance of securing those interests.

If the United States were to engage in aerial combat with a Russian jet and either succeed in shooting it down or be shot down by it, the risk of conflict with a major power becomes acute. Adding a spark to the already tense relationship could result in escalatory measures that quickly get out of control.

It is time for hard, but proper choices to be made. As events of the past several decades have conclusively proven– and painfully reinforced throughout the Middle East since 2011– the United States cannot impose a political solution by military means, period, full stop. The challenges faced by that region are far more complex than even this short article can convey. The only path to stability will be found by those who have to live with the results.

We can and should actively engage diplomatically with any party in the Middle East that seeks a reduction in violence if doing so accomplishes our national security priorities.  Moreover, to the extent we are able, the U.S. should increase humanitarian aid to those in dire need, further advocating for freedom throughout the world.

What must be studiously avoided, however, are any actions or policies that place at risk American security or inhibits global trade. Taking actions that could lead to any level of hostilities between Washington and Moscow would harm core American interests, possibly gravely, and must therefore be prevented. 

It is praiseworthy that American policymakers would want to end the suffering of so many in Syria and Iraq, and seek to eliminate the terror threat of ISIS. But more than two decades of clear policy failures and an analysis of the current convoluted environment makes it clear that a major change of policy towards Syria and the Greater Middle East are necessary. If the Administration is to defend the country’s core interests, those changes must be implemented right away.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by Breaking Defense on June 30, 2017. Read more HERE