The Forever War(s)


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So Trump has, apparently without much discussion with his cabinet and over their express dissent in many cases, decided to unilaterally withdraw US forces from Syria.  It’s caused a big enough rift that Defense Secretary James Mattis has effectively resigned in protest, which should give you an idea of just how incredibly unpopular this move was even within his own political machine.

The weird thing for me, of course, is imagining the average American’s reaction to this revelation:  “Wait, we had troops in Syria?”

I mean, I’m sure people have known that we were “involved” in Syria since Obama drew (and promptly disregarded) his “red line” over Syrian use of chemical weapons, but I’d reckon that most folks just thought of it as a more typical Clinton-esque “We’re there, but only long enough to drop bombs” sort of military involvement.

But still.

We did have troops on the ground.  Quite a few, albeit a small number in a large war, but they were indeed there.

So is this a bad thing?

Honestly, I don’t know.  The logic here from the opposition is that by withdrawing US troops, we will be allowing ISIS a chance to regroup and recover (which I find unlikely), and that we will be allowing Assad and Russia a chance to cut loose and take over (which I find significantly less unlikely).  And since Assad is officially a Bad Man, and Putin is officially a Bad Man, that means that we’ve got a weird coalition of folks on the home front who are profoundly dismayed that the United States may wind up killing fewer brown people in 2019.

And most of them probably really dislike that last sentence.

I can see a certain number of realpolitik reasons for the US to keep stirring the pot in the Middle East.  The simplest is that we keep the attention of the more… industrious terrorist types focused on their home turf rather than ours, but that is quite literally a forever war.  The War on Terror is like the War on Drugs, or the War on Poverty, or the War on Crime; unless you can fundamentally change human nature, it’s a war that will never end; a war without victories, only casualties, and at some point you have to start questioning whether the war is, in fact, worth fighting.

We’ve been messing in a civil war, and we’ve been doing it in the most half-assed fashion imaginable.  Probably because when you get right down to it, there really isn’t a good way to interfere with someone else’s war.  Think of it as three basic approaches: first, pick a side and come in on that side with full force, sufficient to win the war quickly and decisively.  Second, pick a side and offer them sufficient support (you hope) to let them win on their own.  Third, pick a side, or worse a moral perspective, and fart around with “advisors” and “limited support” until the entire situation becomes such a quagmire that you invariably wind up going with the only remaining winning move.

Not to play.

What really complicates matters is that the first two approaches (full and limited intervention) have the extra added bonus of making whoever you back appear to be an illegitimate puppet state in the eyes of the opposition, effectively turning a civil war into a war against a foreign invader.  The first is frequently the unpopular domain of fringe groups; the latter can unify an entire population.

So yeah.

Not entirely sure how I feel about this whole situation.  People can talk about the various crimes Assad has committed, and the need to curtail Russian influence, but we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dead, civilian and soldier alike, millions displaced or rendered into outright refugees, and a war that has dragged on for what is rapidly approaching eight years.

For terms of comparison, that makes it almost two years longer than World War II, and if they don’t wrap it up in the next two years, it’ll wind up being as long as WWII and the American Civil War combined.  The population of Syria, during the course of the war, has decreased by over fifteen percent, with about three percent of the population having been killed outright.

Sure, we’re not a patch yet on the kind of casualties inflicted on the Soviets during World War II, but that really shouldn’t be the metric.  This is certainly bad enough as it is.

So have we been helping or not?  More importantly, in a realpolitik sense, is it to our advantage to help at all?  Putting a thumb in the eye of Assad certainly plays well in some quarters, but if we don’t have a viable alternative the best we can hope for is to drag this situation out until Assad gets deposed (which is more or less what he’s been accusing us of for years) and during that entire time, people are going to die, be displaces, or be driven out of the country altogether.

And it may never happen at all.  Assad controls the majority of the country even still, and if we decide to turn this into a full-on proxy war between Russia and the US, while there’s little doubt of the eventual outcome, it turns out that once the elephants are done stomping around the playground, there’s not much left for anyone else.

I’ve pondered if something along the lines of George H. W. Bush’s “Operation Restore Hope”, in which troops were dispatched to Somalia to effectively create safe zones for the distribution of foodstuffs, would have worked, had it been scaled sufficiently to encompass big enough areas of Syria to matter, and more importantly, had the US leadership possessed the political will to carry out the sort of operations that would have been necessary to secure such areas, but after the interminable and ongoing horror show that has been Iraq and Afghanistan for the last fifteen years, that seemed unlikely, to say nothing of the fact that the level of force required would likely have comprised functionally the entirety of available ground forces not already committed to pissing on someone else’s fire.

In short, I question the point of these half-assed interventions.  We’re clearly not doing enough to actually end the war, so short of that, all we’re doing is extending it.  We may be reducing casualties in the short term, but we’re lengthening the term, and at some point someone really needs to sit down and do the math and figure out exactly how many people would have died or been displaced if we’d just stayed the hell out of it to begin with.

And it’s almost impossible to get the necessary data to figure out that equation, because we’ve been messing in other people’s civil wars for basically forever.  People laud the Pax Americana, but fail to mention that it really only included the major world powers.  Everyone else probably wonders what the bloody hell the stupid Westerners are talking about when they bring up the term, probably because the bombs getting dropped on their countries have “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped on the side as often as not.