Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US Strategy in Syria is Just Insane

As I've been writing my other book, I've been taking breaks and reading a lot about Syria and Iraq because I keep hoping we're going to do something different.

We're not.

I'm not going to talk here about why the US might be choosing such a terrible strategy, but simply outline the ways in which it is so terrible in light of surprisingly limited criticism.

(It has helped me to replace "President Obama" with "President Bush" whenever I read articles about Syria to get a sense of how the public would be reacting if it was making stronger connections to the initial Iraq invasion and that goofy Texan everyone loves to hate.)

So let's tell the Syrian story in some context.

The Arab Spring

Early 2011, a whole bunch of countries in the Arab World start protesting their heavy-handed secular governments. These protesters tended to be some combination of:
  • Western-looking, clean-shaven, tee-shirt wearing liberals (not "progressives" but "liberal" in the sense of "a liberal democracy") that wanted a liberal democracy of their own
  • Oppressed ethno-religious minorities or majorities
  • Hard-core Islamists that wanted to replace these very secular regimes with some form of Sharia
(First, I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine which of these groups are most and least likely to form powerful, long-term militias if anarchy begins in the state.)

Western media mostly portrayed the protests of the first group in places like Benghazi, Homs, Cairo. The protests of ethno-religious minorities in places like Bahrain that were put down by Saudi military action got much less attention.


In 2011, Qaddafi decided to put down the protests before they could become a rebellion, so he began a pacification campaign from Sirte going east towards Benghazi.

The US and some of its EU allies decided to intervene with air support to keep tanks from rolling in and slaughtering Benghazi, which seemed like a nice thing to do.

Scope creep took over, and the West decided that really the only way to keep the people  of Benghazi and elsewhere safe was to provide air support to militias to defeat the Libyan army and overthrow the regime.

That happened quite successfully, and Obama was clever enough to not get on a giant aircraft carrier with a "Mission Accomplished" banner because he is better at managing the media than Bush was, but the US decided we were done.

Immediately after Qaddafi fell, we left, and the militias that had fought against him looted army bases and armories as the army dissolved.

A democracy was formed, but it was plagued by well-armed militias and now-unemployed (and pariah) former army and government personnel. Violence and skirmishes plague the country for 3 years.

(Again, I encourage the reader to replace "Libya" with "Iraq" and "Qaddafi" with "Hussein.")

The story evolves a bit in 2014 as elections are won by Islamists who are pretty terrible, who then immediately get voted out but--oops--decide not to respect the election and use their militias to hold Tripoli. Libya dissolves into a (very slow) civil war between the new Libyan army and the Islamist militias. In the meantime, a whole bunch of different Islamist militias (called the Shura Council) take over half of Benghazi and the Islamic State decide to move in because the place is such a mess that they can get a foothold in there; ISIS takes over Derna and Sirte. And then some other local militias, who are tired of everyone, carve out their own territories. There are now 6 groups fighting each other in Libya. 

(Libya also makes for strange bedfellows: the Tobruk gov't is supported by the US, Russia, UAE, Algeria, Jordan, and Egypt; the Islamist government in Tripoli is supported by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey.) 

It's been a stalemate for the past 2 years.

"Fogg, what does this have to do with Syria?"

While one could give the US the excuse of thinking that "the intervention in Syria will totally be different from Iraq because we're not putting boots on the ground and trying to run the show from Washington," the lessons from Libya leave no such excuse, even for so inexperienced a foreign policy team that led the State Department when the US got involved in Syria.

(When I say Libya's civil war is slow, I mean slow. About 5,000 people have died since the beginning of 2014. 

Syria, on the other hand, has led to probably 300,000 deaths, 130,000 captured or missing, 8 million internally displaced people, and 4 million refugees. )

The one thing that the US and Western allies did right in Libya was support the rebels decisively, which at least knocked Qaddafi out of the fight. This has led to far fewer deaths and a much more "soft" civil war. 


Syrian protests started in 2011 because Assad has ruled with an iron fist as a pretty terrible dude, oppressing the Arab majority, generally putting his cronies in charge, having a Gestapo-like secret police make people disappear, etc. 

Things really blew up when he decided to torture a kid that spraypainted some critical stuff on a wall. Homs quickly got basically taken over by protesters. Assad reacted just like Qaddafi would have, had the US and allies not provided decisive air support: he's been bombing the heck out of rebel strongholds to try to end the rebellion as quickly as possible, and sending in troops with that air support wherever he can.

So what are we doing in Syria? The US has been supporting "moderate rebels" since 2011. But the word "supporting" is an odd one. We are funneling some weapons and supplies to them (which we did in Libya), but we are not bombing Assad. This is probably to keep from open conflict with Russia. 

Just as a reminder, the US and allies like Germany have been steadfast that Assad has to go before any political settlement can be reached. The US considers a totally dysfunctional patchwork of Syrian rebel representatives to be the "government of Syria," which is at least as silly as insisting for 22 years that the Taipei exile government was the "legitimate government of China" and that the Communists were just upstarts that would go away someday. 

Back to Assad. Assad knows that if he "goes," he faces a chopping block, and so do his cronies. The West is too ideologically pure to cut a deal and say, "look, we'll buy you guys a sweet island and grant you immunity." Dictators like Assad face "justice." So the US has pretty explicitly said, "Assad, you have to win this war or you and your family will die."

So there's a lot of motivation for Assad to keep fighting, even as Syria crumbles.

The US' half-hearted supported for Syrian rebels is just enough to keep the fight going. They have enough armaments to keep shooting and not collapse.... at least as long as they're allied with the al-Nursa Front, who is literally al-Qaeda. These guys are the really intense, zealous fighters that are really sticking it to the Syrian regime. Also, just in case we forgot, ISIS was classified as "part of the rebels" early in the war and between 2011 and 2013 we were still arming them. 

Sure, we tried to train some new "moderate" Syrian rebels so that they'd be more powerful, but we managed to train four or five of them before giving up. 

So now we're basically allied with al-Qaeda against Assad, because the "moderate" rebels are really kindof just the hood ornament. 

Imagining Victory

Let's imagine for a moment that we provided air cover and gave the rebels enough support to actually topple Assad. (This is possible if we support the southern front of Rebels with serious air cover, knock out Syrian bases and air power and supply lines, etc.) We could have done this with the "red line" excuse: back in 2013, Obama promised a big thick red line of Assad used chemical weapons. He went ahead and used them about 17 times, and we said, "er, well," and kept up our current strategy.

Anyway. Let's say the Syrian regime collapses, and let's say it collapsed before ISIS took over half the country. You've got Kurds in the northeast that want their own country, and then you've got the moderate rebels that number 40,000-50,000, and a bunch of al-Qaeda-and-friends (which includes a lot of groups) that number between 100,000 and 160,000. 

They duke it out. Guess who wins?

Basically, I don't see how the US imagines any outcome of the collapse of the Syrian regime besides al-Qaeda or ISIS or both taking over Syria.

But Forget That, Because Victory Ain't Happenin'

The Syrian regime is very, very different from the Qaddafi government and the Hussein government: it has pretty broad popular support, decisively controls the fertile heartland of Syria, and has the steadfast support of heavy-hitters like Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (who are willing to put troops on the ground and are willing to bomb the heck out of the rebels, unlike the West). So we're not the only guys parachuting weapons and providing intel: the Syrian government is getting it, too. This is an all-out proxy war, which was not the case in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan.

So these groups have been tearing each other to pieces. Guess who gets to step in and fight at their convenience wherever these two groups are weak? You guessed it: ISIS. Remember that Obama called ISIS "the JV team" of al-Qaeda and we grossly under-estimated their potential strength (which he later lied about). 

But now ISIS has taken over tons of oil resources and is actually constructing some semblance of a functional state--something that no radical Islamist militia has been able to do since the Taliban emerged out of US support for the mujaheddin back in '89.  Now that they've more or less decided not to mess with the Kurds (who are a very united force thanks to their long history of shared ethnic oppression), they get to pick their battles and operate with a great deal of impunity.

The Syrian regime and the Rebels are too concerned fighting each other to be able to oppose ISIS with any serious fervor. Each hopes it's going to win and can then turn its attention against ISIS with united support from the international community. The Kurds aren't going to come in and save Syria--they have no interest in shedding their blood for that. 

(Wikipedia. Note the green "rebels" are the loose alliance of the "moderate" and Islamist rebels.)

The US and allies are bombing ISIS, yes, but ISIS is highly resilient. Remember when we bombed the Viet Cong and North Vietnam for 13 years and the North Vietnamese totally just gave up? Me neither.

So This is Officially Pretty Insane

The depth of delusion at the highest levels of the US government--and the utter refusal to learn and adapt--is frustrating and frankly mind-boggling. 

To summarize:
  • The US is half-heartedly supporting rebel troops just enough to extend a war, but definitely not win it, which gives ISIS plenty of room to grow
  • Oh right, we also armed ISIS for a few years
  • The US is currently allied with al-Qaeda and a bunch of other Islamist groups and that totally won't be just like the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan 
  • If the US decided to whole-heartedly take down the Syrian regime, al-Qaeda-and-friends would almost certainly smother the fractured moderate rebels and take over the country
All scenarios here lead to utter disaster, for decades.

The only way one can support the Syrian rebels and even hope for them to come out on top is to commit Iraq-level troops and support for probably just as long and just as bloody a conflict. And even then, you might just end up with the same kind of corrupt, fractured government that you have in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

But what we're doing right now is just terrible.

Enter Russia

Before I get started, readers should know by now that I'm generally extremely critical of Russia's foreign policy and territory-grabbing, to the point where I sometimes have to re-write posts to keep my frustration to a minimum.

At the UN, basically looking right through to the US Ambassador towards the White House, Putin says, "Do you now realize what you've done?"

For once, I've got to hand it to the guy. 

Russia has actually decided to end the war. It's putting troops in Syria and providing air cover to help Assad's troops carve back territory from rebels and ISIS alike. Russia's aim is to keep Assad in power, yes, but ending the war decisively will bring the nightmare of Syria to an end. 

Russia is actually the best opportunity the US has to get out of this. I know I said I wouldn't speculate on why we insist on such a stupid Syrian policy, but I think some of it is an attempt to "be consistent" and generally save face: we're not going to suddenly start supporting our named "bad guy" in the fight. And we've already backed down once on a line we drew in the sand (chemical weapons). We're probably resistant to coming out and admitting we're wrong.

But we're wrong, and it's killing lots of people.

Russia has proposed a political solution: the rebels ally with Assad to take out ISIS, and in 2 years after everything has settled a bit (which is pretty ambitious), you have elections. If the Syrian people want Assad, he stays, even if he's awful.

"Erik, are you saying we should change policy and prop up Assad?" Absolutely. We should have done it years ago, before each army was beat to snot, but while the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the 2nd best time is now.

The way out is to work together with Russia and Iran, withdraw our support for the Syrian rebels, and tell them they get no more weapons or air cover unless they stop fighting Assad and turn all their guns on ISIS, full-stop. Any group that doesn't becomes our enemy.

It would be embarrassing to admit. But diplomacy is weird: everyone can know we're doing something stupid, but we somehow save face by not admitting it.

But what we're doing in Syria is immoral. 300,000 people have died, the country is a giant pile of rubble, 12 million people have left their homes (only 1/3 of which have made it to the tent-camps of other countries). The moral move in Syria is to end the war. The only way to do that--excepting an Iraq-style commitment that risks direct conflict with Russia--is to support Assad. Full-stop. 

This is Way, Way Worse than Iraq

Hopefully you have been reading this with my instruction to draw parallels to Bush and Iraq.

Syria's worse. Way worse. It has led to the deaths of maybe half of Iraq's 600,000 (and led to the deaths of more than 3x Afghanistan's 100,000) body count, but Iraq also has twice the population of Syria--so in much less time, as much of the country has been killed. Far more have lost their homes.

And unlike Iraq, there is absolutely no end in sight, and the destruction of Syria has been far more thorough than the destruction if Iraq. Iraq has cities, and an economy. Its GDP per capita (PPP) is about $15,000 per year and has been growing every year since the Hussein regime fell. Syria's GDP per capita (PPP) has dropped to maybe $2,000 after having lost more than 60% of its economic output (without the war, it would probably be about $7.000). Its HDI is hard to measure, but basically imagine that everyone in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Derna, Idlib, Palmyra, etc, is living in bombed-out concrete husks without access to basic supplies, and 10% of the population is stuck under ISIS. 

The Syrian war's human toll--and long-term consequences--make Iraq pale in comparison. And it's the way it is because of US policy since 2011.

The Controversy over Syrian Refugees is Comically Depressing

The outrage over some in the US not wanting to take 10,000 Syrian refugees is not wrong, but it's completely misplaced. The idea that our moral duty here is primarily to 10,000 people currently in Turkish or German or Greek camps, and not to the 17,000,000 Syrians we're subjecting to a protracted, nightmarish war so the current administration can try to save face, is absurd.

Why the same Americans that protested Iraq aren't in the streets now protesting Syria is beyond me, but my current guess is that the guys in charge are wearing the Blue Team jersey rather than the Red Team jersey.

Screed over.

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