Our military deployment to Syria in support of various anti-ISIS elements there saw two significant escalations last week.
First, a Marine artillery unit moved into position outside Raqqa, Syria, the “capital” of the Islamic State group’s territorial holdings, to assist in operations to capture the city.
Second, and more surprisingly, U.S. forces began moving, with high visibility, near the city of Manbij in northern Syria. The high visibility was intentional: the movements were intended to stop fighting between our predominantly Kurdish allies and predominantly Arab rival militias, which are backed in turn by our ally Turkey. Also in the area are the Assad regime and special operations forces tied to his strongest backer, Russia.
Both moves came as the Washington Post reported that the “U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks.”
It’s an immensely complex situation—for a good, granular overview, check out this article in Newsweek by Atlantic Council expert Aaron Stein—and that makes these types of new deployments “fraught with risk,” according to former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. (“It is a huge policy change,” Ford told the Chicago Tribune. “We have never in our Syrian policy ever put U.S. personnel in between warring Syrian factions or to maintain a local cease-fire.”) One rumored solution was to let the Assad regime recapture several villages in the area to establish a buffer; even more remarkably, according to Stein, there have been “credible claims” that this may have taken the form of “the [U.S.-backed] SDF simply chang[ing] uniforms to those worn by the regime-allied [and Iran-backed] NDF militia.”
The Manbij move has been attracting criticism from across the political spectrum, ranging from former Obama appointees like Ford to the neoconservative-aligned Washington Free Beacon, whose editor in chief Matt Continetti warned of “mission creep” in “an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States,” and suggested that this kind of fighting—fratricide, from a U.S. point of view—could be a preview of the situation in Syria after ISIS is defeated.
Yet one could make the case that the Manbij situation, despite being condemned by many here inside the Beltway, is a logical extension, or at least a microcosm, of the bipartisan Beltway consensus on U.S. grand strategy. This grand strategy, known as primacy, suggests that the United States should take an active, leadership role in every strategically important region of the world, and that this is good for both the United States and for nations of good will in those regions. Why? “U.S. security commitments reduce competition in key regions and act as a check against potential rivals,” argue three prominent primacist scholars. A primacist strategy “reduces the risk of a dangerous conflict. The United States’ security commitments deter states with aspirations to regional hegemony from contemplating expansion and dissuade U.S. partners from trying to solve security problems on their own in ways that would end up threatening other states.” By taking up a share of others’ security burdens, the primacist view argues, the United States reduces their need for measures to secure themselves—measures that their neighbors may find threatening. The resulting peace, primacists say, is worth it to the United States. And not only that, they argue, the stability brought about by U.S. leadership enables greater international cooperation on collective concerns like terrorism.
Manbij operates according to the same logic. “The Pentagon has described [the U.S. forces’] mission as one to ‘reassure and deter’ local parties from attacking one another,” writes the Chicago Tribune. A Pentagon spokesman added “that that the goal is to urge all parties to ‘stay focused on the common enemy, which is ISIS.'”
It’s not clear yet that this is going to work, but even if it does, it highlights the potential dangers in a primacist approach. American troops’ lives are being put on the line to keep our allies from fighting each other half a world away in a place that matters greatly to those who live there but very little to those who live here. There’s an outside chance of superpower conflict, and the dilemmas might end up being resolved by handing villages back to the child-gassing Assad regime and its toddler-detaining ally, Iran. The very existence of the Manbij dispute is in part due to our own campaign’s driving ISIS back faster than the speed of local politics, and one wonders whether our Kurdish allies have felt more capable of taking on our Turkish allies due to the training and arms we’ve provided. Oh, and it’s not obvious when the “need” for U.S. forces in the Manbij area will end, Raqqa or not. And in spite of all this, the logic of primacy would suggest that these dilemmas are emerging because America hasn’t been involved deeply enough in Syria.
In practice, then, a primacist grand strategy might come with higher risks and costs, both to America’s national power and to its moral example, than its proponents would suggest. Primacists assert that our security commitments around the world won’t lead to entanglement, yet the Manbij situation certainly looks like entanglement, like we are being drawn, with little deliberation, ever deeper into conflicts that have minimal bearing on how safe Americans are here at home. For those who see Manbij as a fight America shouldn’t be taking on, a grand strategy of restraint is worth consideration. After all, if primacy’s logic doesn’t hold up in Syria, do we expect it to hold up anywhere else?
John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, a nonpartisan network of student groups focused on foreign policy. This essay originally appeared in the Society’s weekly newsletter.