President Donald Trump instructed the Pentagon to develop a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Apparently one of the options is introducing U.S. combat forces to confront ISIS. Americans could be fighting in Syria in just a few weeks. That would be an extraordinarily foolish policy.
Defeating the Islamic State is not America’s responsibility. It arose out of Syria’s spiral into civil war and Iraq’s descent into sectarian rule. In the first ruthless Islamists proved to be the most effective opponents of the Assad regime. In the second desperate Sunnis preferred ISIS’s 7th century warriors to Baghdad’s modern sectarian killers.
Originally the Islamic State in the Levant, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, focused on creating a “caliphate,” or quasi-government. Although hostile to America, its principal enemies were states in the Middle East: Shiite Iraq, Syria’s Alawite-dominated government, independence-minded Kurds, Sunni monarchies from Jordan to Saudi Arabia, and Turkey with its secular, practical heritage. Add to that military-ruled Egypt, drawn into the struggle after the slaughter of Coptic Christian workers kidnapped in Libya. Despite the Islamic State’s initial defeat of ill-led Iraqi forces and assumption of a lead role in the Syrian insurgency, the insurgent group faced an overwhelming if largely disorganized coalition.
Bringing these forces to bear would have been complicated and time-consuming. But the initial success of Daesh, as it is known in the Middle East, would have forced its opponents to commit more to defeat the movement. And the Islamic State’s terrorist retaliation, its only means of fighting back against nation states with an overwhelming conventional military advantage, would have been focused on its Middle Eastern opponents.
However, in 2014 the U.S. took the lead in attempting to build an anti-ISIS coalition. Unfortunately, turning the battle into one between Islamic crusaders and the Great Satan helped the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts. America’s involvement also allowed allied states to back away. Turkey and the Gulf states were more interested in ousting Bashar al-Assad than defeating ISIS. Ankara actually accommodated ISIS for some time before moving against the Islamists, and even now more seriously battles Syrian Kurdish forces. The Gulf States largely abandoned the conflict, launching an unprovoked, aggressive assault on Yemen, which the Obama administration backed in a misguided show of allied solidarity.
In Syria Washington found itself lost amid a welter of conflicting powers with different objectives. The administration sought to overthrow Assad, even though he was the strongest barrier against Islamic extremists. The Obama administration sought to simultaneously work with the Kurds and Turkey. In Iraq, America found itself backing a sectarian government guilty of war crimes allied with Iranian militias.
Perhaps worst of all, the Obama administration turned the U.S. and its allies into terrorist targets. After the horrific attacks in Paris a shocked French President Francois Hollande declared that his nation was at war—14 months after his government began bombing ISIS. He obviously had expected a bloodless crusade.
Although the U.S. apparently has not suffered from any terrorist incidents organized by the Islamic State, Americans have died in ISIS-inspired attacks, Moreover, as the group’s defeat looms, it is more likely to try to turn itself into a super al-Qaeda, better at staging murderous attacks on the homelands of those Western nations which attacked the caliphate. While the West could not count on immunity no matter what happened in the fight against ISIS, America’s leading role has dramatically increased the danger.
Despite the failure of most of Washington’s Mideast allies to treat the Islamic State’s rise as an existential threat, the group is losing, and is now “a dead man walking” in the words of Daniel Davis of Defense Priorities. While the struggle certainly is not over, Daesh faces too many foes to succeed. And it is losing to indigenous ground forces. Although U.S. training and air support have helped, the boots on the ground are almost entirely Muslim, from countries and forces directly threatened by ISIS.
Some 500 U.S. military personnel are on station in Syria—special operations forces, bomb squad members, trainers, and commandoes. Introducing American combat units would relieve the pressure on other governments to maintain their efforts. For instance, Turkey has a 400,000 man military and could do much more. The Gulf State could devote both ground and air forces.
Greater U.S. involvement also would reinforce the meme of Christian America versus Muslims. It would more directly entangle Washington in the complicated conflicts among anti-ISIS combatants. And, most important, it would expand Washington’s role in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. And the more deeply involved the U.S. gets, the more difficult it will be to extract itself.
While direct combat would be the worst policy, lesser intervention would create many of the same risks while providing even fewer potential benefits. Arming the so-called moderate insurgents so far has proved to be of dubious value; often these forces have surrendered personnel and weapons to the radicals. Arming insurgents with anti-aircraft weapons would risk leakage to radicals interested in downing Western passenger planes. Creating no-fly or safe zones would bring the U.S. directly into the war against not only ISIS but also Syria and Russia.
Yet none of these measures would guarantee the fall of the Assad regime, let alone creation of a democratic, humane Syrian government friendly to America and the West, as desired by Washington. And having further inflamed the conflict, the U.S. would find it even harder to back away. If the American people liked the outcomes in Iraq and Libya, they would love Washington’s participation in the bitter, bloody, multi-sided Syrian civil war.
Of course, Washington officials who make a career of justifying every conceivable military intervention are trying to stampede the Trump administration. For instance, House Speaker Paul Ryan proclaimed: “It’s in our vital national interest. We must destroy ISIS in Syria.” The question is why, since other nations are doing the job?
The Islamic State is an evil organization, but it has yet to demonstrate an ability to strike the U.S. As for the Middle East, Israel is a regional superpower and secure. The international oil market has changed, diminishing the importance of Gulf oil supplies. In blowing up both Iraq and Libya Washington demonstrated that it in fact cares little about regional stability, whatever its rhetoric. While the human tsunami has unsettled Europe, that is no justification for America going to war.
Finally, such a mission would not be quick and simple. If American forces took Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, then what? Hop onto helicopters the next day and wave good bye? The usual “unnamed source” at the Pentagon told CNN “it’s possible that that you may see conventional forces on the ground in Syria for some period of time.” Once introduced, there would be a multitude of reasons why they could not be quickly withdrawn, and “some period of time” likely would turn into “a long period of time.” Yet it is hard to imagine greater harm to U.S. interests and credibility than getting involved in another lengthy no-win guerrilla conflict, losing support from the American public which comes to feel misled, and finally racing home claiming “peace with honor” when neither in fact prevails.
Let Daesh’s Arab and Muslim enemies defeat it.
Congress should reclaim its authority and insist that the Trump administration request authorization before prosecuting yet another undeclared war. The Obama administration relied on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force approved after 9/11, even though the measure explicitly targeted the perpetrators of those attacks. The Islamic State didn’t even exist at that time.
Proposals for combat intervention in demonstrate Syria yet again that Washington’s interventionist elite learns nothing and remembers nothing from the past. President Trump has an opportunity to begin anew. The American people desperately need a president willing to put them first and say no to more social engineering, more foreign intervention, and more foolish wars.