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Don’t Pursue Primacy in Syria

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4] in Newsweek by Atlantic Council expert Aaron Stein—and that makes these types of new deployments “fraught with risk,” according [2] 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 [5] 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 [6] 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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [9], 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 [10] 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 [11], a nonpartisan network of student groups focused on foreign policy. This essay originally appeared in the Society’s weekly newsletter [12].

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Don’t Pursue Primacy in Syria"

#1 Comment By Mcduffy On March 20, 2017 @ 3:12 am

Syria could easily blow sky high. What would happen if Russia had enough of Israel bombs. Scared to think of it, but if I was Puten I would be looking for some form of retaliation against Israel, all the elements for WW 111 are lined up perfectly insane,

#2 Comment By Simon Gunson On March 20, 2017 @ 5:56 am

USA has no direct threat from Syria and is not there with the permission of the Syrian Government. It is there to destabilize the situation and risks direct confrontation with Russia and/or Turkey. The 82nd Airborne were snatched from Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. The Kuwait based Marines drove in from Iraq. They have very thin lines of logistics support. Turkey will not support them. If USA is not part of the solution then it is part of the problem.

#3 Comment By Johann On March 20, 2017 @ 9:30 am

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian struggle will be disastrous. Keeping Erdogan from the Kurds, if possible, is a sensible goal, as is the refocus of non-jihadi rebels to fighting ISIS. I can understand how this upsets the neoliberals and neocons.

As the article says, this strategy is fraught with risks, but it is 1000% more sensible than the neoliberal children’s crusaders and the neocon war mongers who want to take out Assad. The “take out Assad” strategy has a 100% chance of turning Syria into a jihadi wonderland and a 100% chance of true genocide.

One should note that the current Trump/Pentagon strategy requires coordination with Russia, and even Syria, and therefore also by default, coordination with Iran and Hezbollah.

This action has not gotten much attention in the mainstream media, or as Trump may say, the “fakestream” media. My concern is, once it does, the cries of Russian collusion will be used as a weapon to derail the strategy.

The most important objective I believe is to keep Turkey out and let the Syrian government, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah defeat ISIS in Syria.

#4 Comment By SDS On March 20, 2017 @ 9:39 am

Considering how much we did to MAKE the mess in Syria; it could be argued that we need to keep Turkey from grabbing a piece; and in the process keeping a NATO ally from getting into a shooting war with Syria and Russia; into which we would invariably be called…. Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia; has always supported ISIS anyway; the fight against them has only been for show…. They really hate Assad and the Kurds….

One more case of us having to clean up a mess we made in the first place….

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 21, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

“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.”

I guess this explains why the idea doesn’t work. It is one huge ideological beg of the question.

It assumes that states want or need US need security involvement by the US. It assumes that the US even knows what security commitments a state wants or needs. It assumes that those security involvements will serve as deterrent.

It did not stop Iraq. It did not prevent Iraq and Iran from war. It is not preventing civil war in Libya or Iraq, and Syria. By all accounts our security involvement has created the tangled web of death destruction and refugees. It has utterly decreased security minus any provocation from the states mentioned.

Here’s the problem. In the primacy minor treatise above, it has provided no means for weighing of testing progress. It’s the ultimate circular rationale.

“Things would be worse, it we . . .”

It relies on an unknown even when the evidence makes suggestion that the picture painted on the unknown (counterfactual) is unlikely. Its that vortex in which one gets sagged int the speculation of who did , what of we do that and they do this. Which is fine on the surface but underneath, it ignores some basics.

Doing nothing because nothing is the wiser choice.

Doing nothing because the US has no mandate to violate the sovereignty of other states merely because she thinks she knows best.

This hegemony without reason without justification. And it should be rejected on its face.