If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that military conflict in the Middle East ends neither quickly nor smoothly. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which started in 2001 and 2003 respectively, produced little in terms of success for either side.
In Afghanistan we’ve tried to install and maintain a government under the direction of President Ashraf Ghani, but the Taliban continues to vie for power, leaving the United States stuck in a situation where we must keep Special Forces in the country to maintain stability. In Iraq, ISIS was created in the vacuum of leadership, which entrapped the US military into keeping forces to fight on the ground. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are officially declared to be over, they’re still costing us billions of dollars and hundreds of American lives.
One would think two military conflicts lasting 16 and 14 years respectively would be enough, and yet recent developments suggest that we may be on the verge of entering a third.
While the country has been obsessed with James Comey hearings and the latest tweetstorms, the Trump administration has been aggressively bombing Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. These bombing campaigns have led to a sharp rise in civilian casualties.
Last week, the military shot down a Syrian warplane, leading to a sharp rebuke from Russia.
“All flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected west of the Euphrates, will be followed by Russian air defense systems as targets,” Russians Defense Ministry said in a statement.
This sets up two fronts by which the United States could enter another drawn out war in Syria. The first option is an official war with the state. It’s not difficult to see the series of event that would lead to this outcome. Trump shoots down another Syrian plane, Russia puts its foot down in a real way, Assad retaliates knowing he has the protection of the Kremlin, the Trump administration draws a red line, Assad crosses it and we officially declare war.
The second and more plausible option is that the United States ends up in a ground conflict with ISIS. Assad’s leadership has been tested in recent months, and the U.S. shooting down Syrian airplanes doesn’t help. If Assad’s grip on power weakens, ISIS and other oppositions groups will certainly fill the vacuum. The prospect of ISIS regaining power in Syria would be unacceptable for the Trump administration, making ground war all but inevitable.
It’s important to note just how over extended the United States is in the Middle East. The Trump administration is sending an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. is still fighting an unofficial war in Yemen, and we continue to fund Saudi Arabia’s horrific territorial exploits with massive arms deals.
All this despite the fact that Congress doesn’t get a vote in any of these decisions, meaning the public has no say in the matter. The President of the United States hasn’t received Congressional authorization for a war since World War II. In that time we’ve fought extended conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Kosovo, and Nicaragua.
If the public were to voice their opinions, all of these conflicts would have been avoided entirely or ended much earlier than they were.
That isn’t to say the public should dictate our foreign policy. There’s a lot of classified information and complex intelligence collection that goes on behind the scenes that simply can’t be understood by somebody outside of the Pentagon. But that doesn’t mean the public should be completely excluded, and certainly Congress should be involved in the process. The military costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and its purpose is to keep the country safe. To the extent that it does so, taxpayers should be happy to contribute. When it’s bombing Kosovo or Yemen, on the other hand, the public has a right to ask how exactly this makes us any safer.
If the United States gets involved in Syria, it will likely be the longest and costliest conflict in the Middle East to date. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we knew relatively precisely what our mission was and how to achieve it. Of course a number of unexpected events made things more complicated than was anticipated, but the goal was fairly definable and structured.
In Syria, this is far from the case. The nation’s foremost intelligence and military officials all agree Syria is an unconscionable mess with no simple solution. Simply understanding the depth of the conflict is a tireless endeavor, let alone crafting a strategy for solving it. Once the U.S. entered the conflict, be it against Assad’s brutal dictatorship, ISIS forces, or some horrifying combination of both, it would have its hands tied for what’s difficult to imagine would be less than a decade.
Middle East conflicts of the past reveal a truth that’s hard to swallow; sometimes leaving brutal dictators in power is better than the alternative. It’s a widely held consensus amongst foreign policy experts that Libya and Iraq were more stable under Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein than they became after their leadership vacuums were filled with Islamists.
If the Trump administration wants to avoid extended ground war, he may have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that Assad is better than the opposition. Adding to the mix is Russia, which has stood behind the Assad regime through all its atrocities and looks as if it will do so in perpetuity. Any conflict with the Syrian government would involve Russia, and avoiding that should be priority number one for any decision the administration makes.