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After Routing ISIS From Iraq…More War

Before Iraqi and Western forces launched an offensive to liberate the city of Mosul last August, my colleague Daniel Davis traveled to northern Iraq to meet with the soldiers and commanders on the front lines. A veteran of the Gulf War and the war in Afghanistan, Retired Lieutenant Colonel Davis can smell trouble on the battlefield from a mile away. And after talking with Iraqis, Americans, and soldiers of the Kurdish peshmerga about the upcoming thrust into Iraq’s second largest city, he sensed a looming catastrophe on the horizon—one for which the United States wasn’t prepared.

“From my interviews with senior government officials, military generals, regional experts, [and] displaced persons from increasingly crowded refugee camps,” Davis wrote [1], “it became clear to me that winning the fight for Mosul for the anti-ISIS side is hardly assured, and even if ISIS is eventually eradicated, the absence of a unifying enemy might release pent up animosities and hatreds among current allies.”

Five months after those words were written, time has proven my colleague right not only in Iraq—which is still in the middle of a political war between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad—but also across the border in Syria. Indeed, as this piece is being written, U.S.-armed Arab fighters of the Free Syrian Army are shooting at U.S.-supported Kurdish fighters of the YPG. Turkey, a NATO ally, is threatening to annihilate the Syrian Democratic Forces, the same unit Washington has relied on as a ground army to clear the Islamic State. The U.S. has now managed to alienate the Turks on the one hand and the Syrian Kurds on the other.

As if Syria wasn’t complicated enough, Turkey’s military operation in Afrin [2] has made the country an unsolvable enigma. And Washington—due in large part to overeagerness and short-term decision-making over realistic, long-term planning—has backed itself into a foreseeable corner and contributed to the problem.

At every stage of the conflict, Washington’s Syria policy has been reactive, influenced by the spur-of-the-moment and expansive ambitions. In more cases than not, those decisions have flooded an already tragic conflict with more weapons or brought the U.S. deeper into a contest of wills fought between the region’s major powers.

When the Syrian regime began shooting peaceful demonstrators in 2011, the clamor for Washington to intervene was deafening. When Assad began using tanks and aircraft to suppress a growing rebel revolt, representatives from the foreign policy establishment leapt onto television and begged the Obama administration to increase America’s “skin in the game.” Bills were drafted authorizing the provision of small arms and anti-tank weapons to rebel forces. Calls for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone were made and repeated, despite very little comprehension about what such a zone would cost and how taxing it would be to the United States military.

Eventually, the Obama administration cooperated with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan to ship weapons to the Free Syrian Army, a loose conglomeration of fighters whose goal was the toppling of the government in Damascus. The CIA ran the program, organizing and distributing weapons to anti-Assad fighters in the name of pressuring the regime to negotiate a conflict-ending settlement. And once ISIS became a higher priority, the Pentagon drew up plans to organize and vet rebel forces to fight the group—a program that had in little to no impact on the ground despite a $500 million appropriation from Congress.

Only when all of these initiatives failed did Washington throw its weight to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab organization that cleared substantial amounts of territory from ISIS. Unfortunately, the SDF is the same group Turkey is now seeking to drive away from its border.

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The costs of all this have far outweighed the benefits. Some rebel fighters trained and supplied by the United States simply surrendered [3] to jihadist factions as soon as they crossed the Syrian-Turkish border. Some of the same weapons destined for moderate Syrian fighters were instead captured by extremist groups or diverted onto the black market [4] and sold to far more dangerous characters.

All the while, the U.S. discounted how important Assad’s survival was to Iran and Russia and miscalculated the extent of the support Moscow and Tehran were willing to provide to keep Damascus from collapsing. Bashar al-Assad staying in the presidential palace was vastly more important to Russia’s and Iran’s objectives in the Middle East than attempts to overthrow him were to Washington. America’s ability to navigate the ever-changing waters of the Middle East is not contingent on whether Assad stays or goes—the U.S. is powerful and influential enough to continue operating in the region regardless of Assad’s political status. But the same cannot be said of Russia and Iran, two countries that view the Assad regime as an incompetent but nevertheless useful proxy to defend its vital interests.

Syria was never a crisis Washington could have (or should have) solved. With every American action, there was an opposite and unequal reaction from Moscow and Tehran, and it is the Syrian people who have paid the price. No outside power half a world away can solve Syria’s political issues. It will be for Syrians themselves to determine how they will govern what is left of their country, and neighbors with far more at stake than we have will be involved whether we like it or not.

With the war now entering its eighth year this March, the wisest course for the Trump administration is to detach itself. Nothing the United States can do will stop the conflict if the combatants and their enablers are intent on continuing it.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "After Routing ISIS From Iraq…More War"

#1 Comment By brian On February 12, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

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“When the Syrian regime began shooting peaceful demonstrators in 2011 …”
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this is not a truthful account of how the Syrian conflict started.
In 2010, the CIA hired Eric Prince to stand up, train, equip, pay and direct a 10,000-man Mercenary army, less than 15% Syrians.
In early 2011, these Mercenaries infiltrated crowds of demonstrators and shot at the Syrian security forces from within the crowds. Syrian security forces fired back.
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Obama signed off on this.
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#2 Comment By fool’s errands On February 13, 2018 @ 2:09 am

If Trump has anysense of self-preservation, he’ll fire the idiots and foreign agents who have been advising him on Syria. Of all the stupid-ass decisions he has taken in the Middle East, including enabling the Saudi crimes in Yemen, and recommitting to Afghanistan, the stupidest-ass so far has been to involve us further in the Syrian mess.

A fool could have seen this mess coming from miles away, and dozens of sane, knowledgeable experts have been screaming for us to stay out of it, but our fool President is so completely a creature of the neocon/neolib foreign policy Establishment echo chamber, itself a virtual subsidiary of the Israel and Saudi lobbying operations in DC, that he can’t see any further than his own image in the mirror.

#3 Comment By john On February 13, 2018 @ 2:28 am

I forget did we back the Al-Hatfields this time, or the El-McCoys. We really get involved in all sorts of stuff where we just don’t understand what is really going on.

#4 Comment By Chris Thomas On February 13, 2018 @ 8:04 am

Daniel. You’re completeky wrong. We have to fight until the end of time to stop all islamist groups world wide. Fight forever. No mateer how long it takes. No matter how much it costs.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 13, 2018 @ 8:41 am

It’s a remarkably successful business decision for a government in the pocket of munitions makers to supply weapons to the side it is ostensibly fighting, in order to make sure conflicts can continue to generate war windfall profits. The reason these wars don’t end, is because they’re not meant to. Half a world away, with Homeland Security garrisoning a national security state, there are few blowback downsides any greater than to guarantee public support for continuous war financing. Such wars are only considered lost, should they end – either defeat or victory are unthinkable in this context. And so it goes, in an economy become dependent upon the export of war.

#6 Comment By furbo On February 13, 2018 @ 10:37 am

“Syria was never a crisis Washington could have (or should have) solved.” The thesis sentence for the entire essay and spot on.

#7 Comment By K-Dog-One On February 13, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

Question:
What are all of these articles on this website and other websites decrying the military-industrial complex, endless war, complicated military alliances, etc. actually accomplishing?

Answer:
Absolutely nothing.

Let’s pray that God has mercy on all of humanity for this non-stop parade of killing and destruction.

#8 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 13, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

I don’t really see things as being all that bad. By making himself Assad’s protector, Putin irreversibly bogged himself down in Syria, just as the Soviets did in Afghanistan. He now has to prop up Assad for all time and against all comers The US (or Israel) can lower the boom on him at any time just by re-igniting the war. Putin has no idea where the present fighting will lead and thus has to be permanently on his guard for all eventualities. The US just has to sit there and let him stew!

#9 Comment By b. On February 13, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

Not even wrong.

#10 Comment By romegas On February 13, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

Article full of misinformation:

“When the Syrian regime began shooting peaceful demonstrators in 2011” – this is a western myth, there is plenty of evidence, that like in Ukraine, it was not the regime that fired on demonstrators but agitators whose only purpose was to incite a violent uprising.

“Bashar al-Assad staying in the presidential palace was vastly more important to Russia’s and Iran’s objectives in the Middle East than attempts to overthrow him were to Washington.” After being deceived as regards to Libya, a collapse in Syria was an existential threat to Russia. You think the Russians are idiots? their intelligence services are second to none. They know exactly who fomented the chaos in Chechnya and Dagestan and they paid a heavy price in order to bring those regions back under central control. They were never going totolerate an anarchic Syria from which terrorists with the backing of the gulf states and the US would create trouble again in the region.

“But the same cannot be said of Russia and Iran, two countries that view the Assad regime as an incompetent but nevertheless useful proxy to defend its vital interests.” – yet another lazy cliche – if Assad’s regime was incompetent, it wouldn’t be there. Over 70% of the population live under the government’s protection and they have been loyal to it cause they know that this is NOT primarily a civil war, but a battle of survival against proxies and foreign mercenaries paid for originally by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, The USA and even Israel. Yes Russia provided support as did Hezbollah and Iran – but most of the fighting has been done by the Syrian Army, the Syrian National Forces and ordinary folk. Keep in mind also that both the Syrian Army and the Syrian parliament is predominantly Sunni, so this not a religious conflict either and the Syrians always knew it.

I can go all day, but if there are those that need to be labeled incompetent, I would say criminal it is the pay masters including the US government who have all this blood and destruction on their hands for nothing – because they already lost the war.

The only thing the author gets right is that the US forces should get out of there – they are not wanted, they are breaking international law and they have done nothing but create chaos. This whitewashing of the US and its allies responsibilities in creating the conflict in the first place are shocking and will only serve to undermine the US’s credibility – not only in the region, but with anyone with a modicum of respectability.

#11 Comment By Blue Grass Expat On February 14, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

“I don’t really see things as being all that bad. By making himself Assad’s protector, Putin irreversibly bogged himself down in Syria, just as the Soviets did in Afghanistan. “

Yes! Brilliant! And all we had to do to was bog ourselves down in even more Mideast s***holes than Putin, and for an even longer time.

It’s amazing how our elites refuse to acknowledge that we are even more heavily and expensively bogged down in the Mideast than the USSR or Russia ever were, and that Putin has rather brilliantly managed to keep us there even longer (and at an even lower expense of blood and treasure) than we did when the roles were reversed in the 1980s.

#12 Comment By Home Base On February 14, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

At the point where your “allies” start shooting at each other, it ought to be pretty damn clear that you made a pretty big fooking mistake somewhere along the line.

We never should have gotten involved with the Kurds and we never needed to get involved with them. Now we’re staring, befuddled, into the headlights of Turkish battle tanks trundling down Syrian roads to crush the terrorist threat on their own border.

If we had any self-respect as an ally, if we had any “reputation” or “credibility” left to protect in the region, then we would be helping our NATO ally Turkey clean up the mess we made. As it is, the best we can do is get out of Turkey’s way and pray God to forgive us for what we let the neocons do to the Kurds.

#13 Comment By ESKL On February 14, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

“Bills were drafted authorizing the provision of small arms and anti-tank weapons to rebel forces. Calls for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone were made and repeated, despite very little comprehension about what such a zone would cost and how taxing it would be to the United States military.”

These calls were made by politicians and political/social engineers who know all too well in rallying the sheeple on board. Unfortunately, those who have the minimum intelligence and knowledge to debate this article’s topic is like one in a hundred thousand people. Those that aren’t corrupted and just wants to do the right thing are probably less. That’s a serious minority that’ll get swamped and marginalized by the larger, simpler, dumber, but more mesmerizing calls for “action”.

When the majority are prepped up for action and join the chorus calling for action, politicians are only eager to jump into action. When they realize they’re on a dangerous ledge or the side of bridge, we can be assured they’ll quietly install safety nets before jumping.

My apologies, but my point is how can the minority affect change in which the clear majority exhibits a knowledge vacuum of the issues at stake?!? Even elected politicians with advisors and access to more information than the general public are clearly not comprehending the entirety of the issues and the consequences of actions taken.