At the end of my first semester at the National War College, I failed miserably at my oral exam. The exam was fairly simple, identify a country or region and then develop a US foreign policy strategy to address issues with said country or region. I chose North Korea and went in ready to discuss how any strategy about North Korea was really about China.1 One of my examiners was a State Department ambassador (who was brand new to the War College as an instructor) who didn’t take kindly to my circumventing of addressing North Korea individually and my approach of addressing North Korea through China. The whole oral exam was nothing more than a pissing contest between me and the ambassador…guess who lost and had to redo…in which I learned to simplify the complex. This resulted in no real strategy. Right now, those beating the “let’s strike Syria with missiles” are attempting to simplify the complex…and like my first National War College oral exam redo…this is no real strategy.
Like the theory of “North Korea is really about China,” Syria is really about Iran and Russia. Any discussion that doesn’t begin with a discussion of this strategic environment factor is bullshitting themselves and you. Here is my attempt to simplify the complex…here is my attempt to argue that the US has two very clear choices in Syria. We either bomb the shit out of Syria, then insert ground forces to dethrone Assad and destroy all Islamist factions2…and then nation-build, OR we idly watch the plethora of rebel factions and Assad bleed each other dry…cause you know, doing nothing is a strategy too.
– Assad’s Syria is supported by Russia. Russia, since the end of the Cold War, views the world as it was and how it wants it that way again. Here is a good NPR interview discussing how “fear” drives Russia’s support of Assad. Basically, the more the US gets its way in the world the more Russia sees it not getting its way. Syria, during the Cold War, was sponsored by the Soviet Union…that support continued following USSR’s collapse. Is Syria worth continued animosity with Russia?
– It’s about Iran. All last year we couldn’t shut up about Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons…this of course followed after our doing the job Iran was unable to do…and that was totally destroying the only country that kept Iran in check…Iraq. Sunni versus Shite…Arab versus Persian. We basically fought a war for Iran as their proxy when we disposed Saddam…and then we fretted about Iran’s growing desire for hegemony in the region. So let’s follow this crazy train of thought and strategy: so no Iraqis attacked us on 9/11…these non-Iraqis plotted from Afghanistan.3 Then we said Iraq supported them…not true. Then we said Iraq had WMDs…not true. Then we invaded Iraq and now it’s a mess that foreshadows what Syria may look like if we assist in disposing of Assad. Iran supports Assad. Iran supports Hezbollah (from Lebanon) who fight for Assad in Syria. Iran is probably supporting a number of rebel factions…just in case…you know, cause a nation-state attempting hegemony is never going to bet on a single horse in a race…win, place, or show is good enough. Iran is there for the long haul…it’s their neighborhood and know that America will only do so much, or be there for so long.
– Red line on chemical weapons. Yes there is an almost universal ban on the use of chemical weapons. Yes by our standards this despicable. Yes it is disgusting. Yes Assad used chemical weapons.
…but as the Onion so obviously stated in a “Assad” written editorial:
“Well, here we are. It’s been two years of fighting, over 100,000 people are dead, there are no signs of this war ending, and a week ago I used chemical weapons on my own people. If you don’t do anything about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. If you do something about it, thousands of Syrians are going to die. Morally speaking, you’re on the hook for those deaths no matter how you look at it.”4
It isn’t just President Obama’s red line…it is supposedly everyone’s red line…but are cruise missile strikes going to make a difference?
– Congress clouds our thinking. Five days ago, some polls showed a very limited majority supported cruise missile strikes…but a vast majority supported Congress getting a say in the process of striking Syria. Within hours of leaders from both the GOP and Dems (in both the House and Senate) stating public support for striking Syria, polls immediately showed a vast majority did not support any strikes against Syria. Not sure…but this might be more about American voter distaste for congressional thought than Syria.
– Iraq clouds our thinking. Finally, the idea of our destruction and attempt at rebuilding Iraq is emerging as a factor that enters into our conversation about Syria. The President and his cabinet…and the Joint Chairmen…say “no boots on the ground” in an attempt to reassure us and Congress that this isn’t Iraq…yet now we really do have a country with a despot that really does have WMDs…and because of Iraq (our gift to Iran) we just can’t stomach the thought of “boots on the ground.”
…and on and on and on go the strategic environment factors on US strategy toward Syria. Whomever decides to address this situation at this coming December’s National War College’s oral exams would be wise to avoid pissing contests with ambassadors (turned instructor) and simplify the shit out of it…cause you know no one wants to think about complex issues. So either go hard and turn Syria into Germany following World War II…which still includes US military housing complexes5 or sit back and let Iran worry about it.
1. I can explain at another time my national security theory about North Korea being China’s little brother who pisses in the corner of his basement apartment when he gets shit-faced drunk.
2. Crown some non-Islamist rebel faction the winner and then pay them, their forces, and fight their war for them until they can do it themselves.
3. Not in the Middle East.
4. Onion link
5. Want to know how to tell if America won the war or not?…we won if we establish long-term military bases there and US service members get to bring their spouses and kids along…and then Burger Kings and bowling alleys will flourish.