There is no solution to the conflict in Syria that would appease all sides and bring about a final and permanent halt to the bloodshed. It is the duty of U.S. President Donald Trump, therefore, to ensure that America emerges from the morass with as insignificant damage – and as few casualties – as possible. There is a way to do this, but it would take much courage.
During the six-year-old Syrian civil war, approximately 470,000 people have lost their lives, including some 55,000 children. These are the most recent figures from iamsyria.org. According to the New York Times, “dozens” of people were killed in a chemical attack Tuesday in northern Syria. Suddenly, there is renewed outrage from the international community. President Trump said Wednesday that the incident has made him re-think his approach to the conflict. “My attitude toward Syria, and Assad, has changed very much.” He announced, during a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Trump’s pronouncement was less than specific, which is in line with his belief that one does not telegraph one’s specific intent to the enemy. Clearly, however, the chemical attack spurred him into action; the U.S. military struck back against Assad Thursday night, levelling the Syrian airbase from which Tuesday’s attack was launched.
The military intervention of Syria’s ally, Russia, has muddied the waters considerably; The U.S. military certainly has the capability to deal the Islamic State (ISIS) a decisive defeat but is hindered by the presence of Russian air-power. Without massive military response from America, then, how does the war play out?
The principle characters in the fight are the Syrian government, the Russians and ISIS. The Syrian rebel factions, who ignited the war when they rebelled against Assad’s oppressive regime, now play a less significant role. It was their – initially – successful push to overthrow Assad that led Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene. Since then, they have suffered significant reversals and are now no closer to toppling the Syrian government than they were six years ago. Partly, this is due to their inability to present a fully united front; hardline Islamists have struggled against a more moderate faction for dominance within the rebel ranks.
Aside from the main players, there is America – who’s potentially leading role was squandered by President Barack Obama – and the Iranians, who see the opportunity to expand their own sphere of influence.
It remains to be seen how far down the road of military intervention President Trump intends to take us. Was Thursday’s airstrike merely a warning to the Syrians that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated or was it, literally, the opening salvo in another major U.S. military expedition?
In an ideal world, American military might – perhaps with the aid or, at least, tacit approval of Russia – could be brought to bear on ISIS, wiping them out within a relatively short period of time. This scenario is fanciful, however, since Russia would never have cooperated, considering its own interests in the region. Despite any desire on the part of the Trump administration to destroy the Islamic State, full-scale military intervention is now fraught with risk. The alternative is a harsh one, but may be the best possible outcome for the United States. That alternative is to leave the Syrians and Russians to deal with ISIS, which they, inevitably, must do.
Certainly, the U.S. should do everything it can – and much more than it is currently doing – to facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians from the battle-space. This could be done with a coalition of western and Arab forces. Beyond mitigating the tragedy of civilian casualties, American intervention is not worth the American lives it would cost and, further, would only end the Islamic State’s presence in Syria, but not its existence.
Just as al-Qaeda did, after its defeat in Afghanistan, ISIS will respond to military defeat in Syria by fanning out across a larger geographical area, as it has already begun to do. Better to allow the terrorist army to focus its efforts on Syria. As a military tactic, this is by no means a novel idea; the concept of luring – or driving – one’s enemy into one defined space, rather than fighting him on multiple fronts, is as old as the history of warfare itself.
ISIS has staked its claim to Syria as the center of its caliphate. To this point, Russian military action has been directed almost exclusively at Assad’s principle foe; the Syrian rebel forces. Without U.S. intervention, the Syrian army, aided by Russian forces, will inevitably destroy the last pockets of rebel resistance. They can broker no peace with ISIS, however; left unmolested, ISIS will come for Assad and the Russians will be forced into direct confrontation with them. This would be a fight that the Islamic State cannot win, but may, indeed, drive it to carry the fight to the Russian people. The recent bombing in the Russian city of St. Petersburg could be an opening salvo.
As this proposed scenario plays out, the United States will have fulfilled a humanitarian role and suffered few casualties. the Russians will have inherited another Afghanistan; having fought, and won, a bloody conflict with ISIS, they are invested in continuing to prop up an Assad regime constantly battling to keep its opponents within its own borders in check. ISIS, as a military force, will be finished – even though it will, no doubt, continue its heinous agenda as a disparate terrorist organization.
Should events be allowed to unfold in this way, there are no real winners, but the United States will be the least damaged of all the losers. After 16 years of almost constant war, the American people may well consider that a significant victory.