Last Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden signaled the United States was open to military escalation in Syria. Speaking in Istanbul after a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey on the future of Syria, Biden said a political solution to the fighting was preferable, “but we are prepared. . . to have a military solution to this operation and taking out Daesh (ISIS, or the Islamic State).” If the United States desires to turn a difficult situation for the international community in the Middle East into an outright American disaster, then we should by all means pursue deeper military engagement.
It is astounding that after two decades of failing to achieve strategic objectives in the Middle East using armed force, that a military solution in Syria now would even be considered. Biden is often lampooned as being prone to make gaffs. But he is clearly an intelligent man. The vice president is not going to float such an idea at a public briefing with the prime minister of an allied NATO power unless it has seen considerable contemplation in the White House. In all likelihood, his statement was a trial balloon to see what reaction it would get. Based on how past military deployments have played out, we should be concerned.
First, the vice president’s statement must be seen in context. It represents the latest step of a non-stop series of escalating military moves against the Islamic State that began in June 2014. Shortly after the virtual disintegration of the Iraqi army against a few thousand ISIS troops, President Obama announced the United States would send 300 troops “to assess how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.” He pointedly added that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq. . .” They would only be there, he said, “to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces. . .” That limitation didn’t last long.
In August 2014 the United States began bombing ISIS targets to blunt an ISIS advance towards Irbil. Later that month the president authorized “limited” airstrikes in support of civilians trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar.
On September 1, the president said he “authorized U.S. Armed Forces to conduct targeted airstrikes in support of an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in the town of Amirli, Iraq, which is surrounded and besieged by ISIL. . . These additional operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis. . .” Yet the very next day, the mission expanded again.
The White House announced the President authorized the Department of Defense to “fulfill a Department of State request for approximately 350 additional U.S. military personnel to protect our diplomatic facilities and personnel in Baghdad. . . These additional forces will not serve in a combat role.” Two months later—on a Friday—the White House Press Office released a statement saying “as a part of our strategy for strengthening partners on the ground, President Obama today authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 additional U.S. military personnel. . . U.S. troops will not be in combat.” That restriction also proved negotiable.
On December 1, 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, told the legislators that the United States was now going to deploy “a specialized expeditionary targeting force to assist Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. . . These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence and capture ISIL leaders. This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.” So, when Biden publicly states the United States is considering an even stronger “military solution” to ISIS in Syria, his words must be taken seriously.
They must also be resisted strenuously by Congress.
The United States had 160,000 troops on the ground in Iraq in 2008 and succeeded only in securing a temporary reduction in violence. There were 100,000 at the height of the surge in Afghanistan in 2010, and that deployment merely dented the violence. Today both countries are ablaze in a virtual civil war, and there is no end in sight for the violence. Moreover, in both of those conflicts, the United States was fighting for the governments against the rebels. In Syria we would likely be fighting against the government, but also opposing ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups. It is unclear what military success in such a chaotic environment would even look like.
With such ill-defined opponents, the geography of Syria, and the fact other major military deployments have failed to secure American interests, going into Syria would almost certainly result in failure. With Russia militarily supporting Damascus, the potential for unintended clashes with a major world power could turn a disaster into a catastrophe.
Regardless of how much the United States would like to see ISIS eradicated, it must resist attempting to do so using methods that are almost certain to fail—and would likely make the situation deteriorate further. The American Armed Forces are powerful and can accomplish much. But they are not a magic solution for every international problem that exists. In the name of keeping American interests as secure as possible, Americans must firmly resist the temptation to escalate the fight in Syria.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after twenty-one years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter@DanielLDavis1.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/VOA.