Understanding past mistakes:
the Possibility of American Intervention in Syria
By Aaron Blinderman, Colorado College
Syria is rife with conflict. Bashar Al-Assad’s authoritarian regime desperately holds on to power using whatever means necessary. Fragmented groups of opposition fighters with no overarching political agenda besides ridding Syria of Assad are in deep conflict with the regime and each other. The opposition has within it a large contingent of anti-western Islamic fighters. Finally, the Islamic State encroaches on Al-Assad’s territory and fights a war to fully create the Islamic state in Syria
This conflict has many in the United States calling for action. Many voices: civilian, military, and political, want to protect civilians in Syria somehow, some want to withdraw from the conflict to focus on problems at home, and some want to pursue action in order to stop the violence and civilian loss of life. While I agree that action should be taken in order to minimize loss of life, and to also halt the growth of Russian influence in Syria through the government’s support of AL-Assad, I would rule out a “boots on the ground” strategy.
While it is necessary to maintain the ability to strike high value targets in Syria when deemed absolutely necessary, a boots on the ground strategy will not be successful, and ‘artificial nation building’ and occupation in Syria will see the same outcomes as Iraq and Afghanistan. Military force should only be used to defend autonomous groups like the Kurds, or to halt confirmed and immediate terrorist threats.
The phrase boots on the ground has been used as a policy proposal since the Vietnam era. From statements made by military officials to politicians, the phrase has reached popularity within the foreign policy realm of US politics. The reason for its popularity is two-fold: the ambiguity of the term, and its showing of strength. Boots on the ground implies a military commitment, but only that. The timeline, overarching military strategy, and numbers of troops are all left for a later date. In the last decade, ‘Boots on the ground’ has been advocated for in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. With the broadness that it implies, Syria has become the latest region in which significant voices, such as former assistant secretary of state James Dobbins and intellectual and fellow at Foundations for the Defense of Democracies Ammar Abdulhamid, have advocated for some form of ground intervention.
Looking back at our last two wars fought, with 2,229 US lives lost in Iraq, and 4,488 in Afghanistan. The cost to the United States was high. In return, Afghanistan is seeing a resurgence of the Taliban, and is being held together by a notoriously weak government, and Iraq, after a decade of weak and splintered democratic rule now sees the Islamic state rule over half of the nation, and its own state apparatus seeing minimal effect in combatting IS military forces. The state of these countries is bleak, but also perhaps just as bleak as they were under the rule of the Taliban, and the dictator Saddam Hussein respectively. The United States’ strategy of artificial nation building failed at building a solid governing body.
However, there is an extreme loss of life occurring in Syria. According to the New York Times, as of September 2015, over 200,000 people had died. From the strife and conflict, the Islamic State gains ground and power. ISIS now has the power to strike at high value targets in the West, such as the horrifying attack in Paris on November 13th, 2015. Russia also is already involved in the region, utilizing airstrikes to fight the Islamic state in support of Bashar al-Assad. While the deployment of American soldiers to Syria might have some short term tactical benefits, the long term costs of this strategy outweigh any short term gains. American occupation, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, might ward off foreign influence from some nations, but can have unforeseen consequences such as the strengthening of Iran in the case of the Iraqi occupation. Occupation ultimately creates a quagmire that costs American lives and minimizes terrorist threats and civil conflict for only as long as troops remain. With the fragmented and feuding coalition of resistance fighters, there is no local force or institution that can create a centralized governing body.
As such, while the use of ground troops might sound tempting today, the long term effects will lead to an even more destabilized state, and more strife and violence. In regards to Russian influence in the region, American troops in Syria will only exacerbate conflict between the two nations, and if the Russian Government decides to utilize a more aggressive strategy, they will end up much the same as they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
A boots on the ground strategy is not advisable for the future of the region and for the protection of American lives. However, continued American military involvement through air-strikes will minimize the capabilities of ISIS in the region, and diminish direct risk to American interests in the region. While the risk of attacks from the Islamic state operating out of Syria will always be there, there will be no way to guarantee safety, as seen by our previous military actions in the region.
We cannot become mired in Syria, and there is unfortunately no force that can be backed that represents values we share completely. Therefore, we must do what we can from afar and encourage international entities such as the UN, and others to get more involved, confident that any Russian debate over the region will meet similar ends either intellectually, or in action. For the United States, it is clear that our way forward in Syria is not through ground forces. While there is no US policy that can directly help Syria progress in a permanent fashion, our own involvement in the protection of American citizens and for some in Syria does have an impact domestically and for the protection of at risk minorities.