American strategists might learn a thing or two from Russia’s in-and-out Syrian war.
Vladimir Putin’s splendid little war in Syria did not go off without a hitch. There was the set-to with Turkey; the downed Sukhoi jet. There was international condemnation for bombing civilian targets while sparing ISIS. There were personal frictions between Bashar Assad and Mr. Putin, which might explain the abruptness with which Mr. Putin announced Russia’s departure.
Yet it took Mr. Putin just six months to show the world that modest military inputs can decisively tilt the balance of power, and that not every Mideast intervention descends into quagmire. Too bad it was in the service of propping up two dictatorships—Russia’s as well as Syria’s.
Could the next U.S. president learn something from this case study in the use of power? Let’s stipulate that no future president is likely to order aircraft to drop unguided munitions on village marketplaces, as Mr. Putin did in Idlib and Aleppo. Gratuitous cruelty is not the American way of making war in the 21st century, whatever Donald Trump may think. Still, there are some lessons here for future interveners. Like:
1) Take a side. “A prince,” wrote Machiavelli, “is also respected when he is either a true friend or a downright enemy”—an approach, the Florentine added, that “will always be more advantageous than standing neutral.” In Syria, Mr. Putin took the side of the regime. In previous interventions in Ukraine and Georgia, he took the side of local Russian minorities.
That’s an improvement over the Obama Method, which is to take the side of “history” while casting feckless and irritating aspersions on everyone. It’s an improvement, too, over the Bush Method, which was to go to war for the sake of a concept, like democracy, and then cross fingers that it would find a competent local champion.
2) Use proxies. The point of proxies is to avoid doing all the fighting yourself. And to have someone who will be beholden to you after you leave. But a proxy is pointless if you aren’t willing to support him properly, whether out of moral squeamishness or indifference to the outcome of the war.
In the Balkan wars, we used the Croatian army as a proxy to help blunt Serb power in Bosnia. In Afghanistan we had a proxy in the Northern Alliance, which explains why the Taliban were deposed so swiftly. In Iraq, we made insufficient use of one proxy, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and disbanded what could have been the other, the standing Iraqi army. We had to do everything ourselves. If we’re not prepared to accept that our proxies may not perfectly represent our values, perhaps it’s best not to intervene at all.
3) Define a realistic objective. Mr. Obama’s constant assessment of Russia’s intervention in Syria was that it was destined to become a replay of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with hundreds of thousands of ground troops taking ever-greater casualties from wily mujahedeen fighters.
Yet again, Mr. Obama didn’t know what he didn’t know. Mr. Putin couldn’t afford a long intervention in Syria. But he knew that a small but dynamic deployment of aircraft could destroy the Assad regime’s relatively weak moderate opposition, turning the Syrian war into a referendum—both domestically and internationally—between the regime and ISIS. Whose side are we on, now?
4) Remember the Earl Butz rule. It’s named after the former secretary of agriculture, who remarked, in reference to a papal edict regarding contraception, “You no play-a da game, you no make-a da rules.” One of the purposes of military intervention is to shape the diplomatic outcome, which is why Mr. Kerry is so strikingly irrelevant in negotiating an end to the Syrian war.
5) Preserve your options. Russia has withdrawn from Syria—except where it hasn’t. It will maintain an upgraded naval facility in the port of Tartus, along with an air base. Mr. Putin has made it clear he’s prepared to return forces to Syria at will, and the success of the operation means any return will have popular backing. That was an option the U.S. could have exercised in Iraq, or Libya, by maintaining a military presence sufficient to suppress insurgents, deter Iranians, and balance competing sectarian interests. We didn’t, and the results are well known.
So what should the U.S. do in Syria? Here’s a thought: Give up on a unitary Syrian state, which guarantees a zero-sum struggle for power instead of a division of territorial spoils. Support Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, backed by a tripwire U.S. force to deter Turkish intervention, and an Alawite state around Latakia, backed by Russia, with the proviso that the Assads must go. Destroy ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups by combining massive U.S. air power and a coalition of Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian troops.
Problem fixed? Not quite. But it shrinks the Syrian tumor. The point of intervention isn’t to solve everything. And as Vladimir has reminded the world again, trying to solve everything solves nothing.