The Next Phase of America’s War in Syria

By Maj. Danny Sjursen, USA

As we have seen time and time again, regime changes and extended military occupations are a bad bet and a worse investment for the United States. After years of occupying Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, none boast anything resembling stability or prosperity. Nor have protracted military interventions in these erratic countries—despite trillions spent; 7,000 dead American troops; and more than a million locals killed— made our Homeland any safer. Sober, coherent strategy demands that policymakers weigh past costs and benefits prior to committing to future operations.

This month, the Trump administration has all but pledged itself to an open-ended nation-building operation in U.S.-occupied, northeast Syria. Given America’s uninspiring recent track record, this should concern us all.

In Afghanistan, a modest, limited operation to unseat al-Qaeda morphed into a quixotic attempt to reconstruct a country shattered by decades of internecine warfare. Despite the best of intentions, U.S. efforts to fashion a centralized, presidential government on a nation historically built around rural autonomy and devolution was always a long shot. Now, after 17 years, in the face of persistent bombings in the very center of Kabul and a record number of Afghan provinces and districts under the control of or contested by the Taliban, it’s obvious America’s first post-9/11 regime change operation was a bust.

Operation IRAQI FREEDOM proved worse still. Leaving aside the incorrect intelligence and inherently flawed ideology that assumed the forceful spread of democracy was both possible and protected America, the ensuing occupation was a catastrophe. Some 4,500 American troops were killed fighting a multifaceted insurgency, hundreds of thousands of civilians perished in the unleashed civil war, and the chauvinist Shia government that arose from the ashes helped foster the rise of ISIS. The growth of that unintended monster triggered a new, still ongoing, U.S. military operation in the country.

Ill-advised regime change was never just a conservative problem. Prominent progressives supported the Iraq invasion—including the current Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer—and President Barack Obama (at Hillary Clinton’s behest) commanded the third disastrous American exercise in regime change, in Libya. Here, an operation sold as a humanitarian intervention quietly (and immediately) shifted to a full-blown overthrow of Gaddafi’s government.

With little forethought, Libya fractured into its current state: vicious, regionally destabilizing civil war that has become a magnet for extremists. Currently split between two rival militias and governments, the resultant spillover from still unstable Libya has catalyzed transnational strife in Mali and Niger. The U.S. and its allies are still grappling with that mess.

Which brings us back to the harsh realities of the U.S. position in Syria. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad —no matter how much the U.S. would prefer he step down—has essentially won the civil war and ensured his regime’s survival. Assad has his Russian and Iranian allies to thank for that positive outcome. As it stands, the U.S. and its allied Kurdish militia hold only the northeast portion of the country and remain locked in a precarious stalemate along the Euphrates River, staring down Russian, Iranian, and regime forces. It wouldn’t take much to spark a catastrophic conflict.

To add to the dilemma, the U.S. faces an anti-Kurdish, Turkish offensive on its northwest flank. Indeed, our putative NATO ally has sternly warned the U.S. to steer clear of its invasion route.

Then there are the problems inherent to military occupation of the northeast enclave. Though conventional ISIS forces are essentially defeated, ideology of the Islamic State endures.  Furthermore, the longer the U.S. military stays put, the more the situation resembles indefinite occupation. That could, recent history being any judge, lead to a local or ISIS-inspired insurgency, especially among Syria’s majority Sunnis.

Furthermore, though U.S. forces intend to provide basic aid to local infrastructure, officials have explicitly announced that they intend to “avoid major ‘nation-building’ reconstruction.” That briefs well, but remember the lesson of Iraq: so long as the U.S. military is the main security game in town, expect the locals to look to it for assistance. Whatever does or does not happen in northeast Syria will be on us. Poor electricity supply: that’s on us. Food shortages and drought: that’s our problem, too. Over promise and under produce too long and the locals will grow frustrated. Rebellions have stemmed from far less. That’s the Syria trap.

It’s time for hard decisions and realistic analysis. The U.S. military may have already accomplished all it can (and needs to) in Syria. It is now wading into treacherous waters as the mission expands to countering Iran, forcing a diplomatic solution in Geneva, and quietly nation-building in the northeast. The U.S. may, understandably, desire all of those things, but none rank as truly vital national security interests worthy of hefty military investment.  Realism demands the U.S. weigh the immense commitments with the paltry plausible payoffs.

Every situation is different, but if three recent regime changes are any guide to the future, Washington should seriously consider setting minimalist objectives and avoid letting sunk costs sink America deeper into Syria. It won’t be pretty, but at least it might stave off another fiasco.

Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on February 7, 2018. Read more HERE.