Faced with a declining diplomatic climate featuring an indignant Russia, and intransigent Syrian regime, and appalling conditions on the ground in Aleppo, White House advisers are reportedly giving fresh consideration to major U.S. military operations in Syria.
And while President Barack Obama has been adamant about his unwillingness to dramatically escalate American involvement in Syria’s messy civil war, the next president may be more persuadable on this point.
That would be a grave mistake. Though it is certainly true that Syria is in crisis, there is no credible evidence that amping up American involvement will speed the massacred country’s progress back toward peace and stability. In fact, the current administration—and the D.C. foreign policy elites whose reflex is always to suggest more military force—has no strategy in Syria whatsoever. There’s just a country on fire, and we’re going to be “there” for the sake of, well, being there.
Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported air strike on the rebel-held Salihin neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo, on Sept. 11, 2016. (Getty Images/AMEER ALHALBI)
But any further military action, or arming of this group of rebels or that, will pile yet another long-term nation-building obligation on a stack of misguided interventions that already promise to cost us dearly for years to come. Escalated ground war in Syria would be mission creep at its worst, waged in partnership with untrustworthy allies and adding to the growing roster of reckless, misguided wars our government has launched without due constitutional process or the clear support of the American people.
For those unconvinced of the uncertainty of positive results, we only need remember the many unintended consequences of the past decade and a half of Mideast interventionism.
From deposing Saddam in Iraq to pursuing regime change in our failed Libyan intervention, the promise that further U.S. involvement in Syria will foster stability is at this point beyond difficult to credit.
No one of good conscience wants to see the people of Aleppo continue to suffer, but it is naïve to pretend we can be confident American military intervention is the key to restoring their safety.
If anything, it is likely to make things worse for Syrian innocents and the United States alike. Much as we’ve seen again and again in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s supposed allies are not a reliable bunch. We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars training “moderate” Syrian rebels and literally five of them successfully joined the fight against the Islamic State—while others decided to take their new skills to help out al Qaeda instead.
Meanwhile, our habit of arming these rebels has flooded the black market with U.S.-made weapons now available for purchase by militants of all ideological stripes, Islamic State very much included. And our Syrian allies can’t even keep from warring among themselves: As we learned in March, CIA-backed militias are fighting Pentagon-backed Kurdish forces over contested territory near Aleppo. In other words, some small portion of the violence Aleppo has suffered is thanks to our dubious allies, through whom the United States is fighting herself by proxy.
It’s no wonder polling shows Americans have such mixed feelings about further intervention in Syria, which would almost certainly be launched by an out-of-control presidency independent of constitutionally-required congressional declaration of war. Data from last month finds the public is not supportive of ground war in Syria—or really any significant escalation beyond the current level of intervention (with the possible exception of a no-fly zone). In fact, only one in four Americans can get behind continuing to arm Syrian rebels, a wise choice given the abysmal record of that program.
The Washington foreign policy establishment should heed that wisdom and drop its imprudent push for further intervention.
There is no way such an escalation—which would be better handled by regional powers whose national interests are far more affected by Syria’s fate than our own—will produce a positive result for the United States.
At best, we defeat Islamic State as well as the Bashar al-Assad regime, landing ourselves with decades of expensive, difficult nation-building obligations that recent years have proven we are ill-equipped to fulfill. More likely, we unintentionally help a dictator stay in power—or, perhaps worse, we oust Assad and allow Islamic State to surge into the power vacuum that results. Remember, ridding Libya of Gaddafi led to more violence, not less, and established a new beachhead in Africa for Islamic State and terrorism.
With options like these, it should be easy to conclude expanded U.S. military action in Syria is a mistake we cannot afford to make.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing writer at The Week, and a columnist at Rare.
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