After horrifying massacres and a lengthy uprising, Syria is on the U.S. policy radar as never before. The Washington Post sees a “threat to vital U.S. interests” that is likely to grow, and Senator John McCain expects a debate on whether Washington’s inaction calls into question “our commitment to the fundamental rights.” For those advocating that we “do something,” one of the main military options being bandied about at this point is a seemingly low-risk and inexpensive endeavor: “Arm the rebels.”
It is worth pausing over the subconscious images implied by that phrase: truckloads of arms being ferried to grateful and well-organized rebel units, arriving at convenient and safe central-distribution centers. But in reality, such a policy would take months to become effective. There are great difficulties inherent in supplying a disunified movement. In the end, such an effort most likely only would contribute to the brewing civil war in Syria rather than generating a decisive outcome. While this approach would minimize risk to U.S. service personnel, it embraces a risk of a different sort—strategy creep.
The term “mission creep” is a familiar one. During the U.S. involvement in Somalia in the early 1990s, Washington was largely successful in delivering relief supplies to the population. But these successes led to no durable improvement, since Somalia’s warring factions continued to fuel the nation’s instability.
The United States eventually opted to seek a decisive result by expanding the military’s mission to include efforts to detain individuals contributing to the country’s civil conflict. This creeping expansion of the mission eventually led to the “Blackhawk Down” incident of October 1993 and the death of seventeen U.S. personnel. Mission creep failed to improve Somalia’s situation and instead led to an American withdrawal.
In Syria, the goal of U.S. policy is likely to remain the same: the removal of Bashar al-Assad’s government. The danger is that the U.S. strategy could begin to creep, with a gradual broadening of America’s chosen strategy when cautious approaches fail to achieve the desired result.
Supplying the rebels with arms in this situation is likely to do little more than hasten the emergence of civil war. If this limited and ineffective measure were enough to quiet the calls for the United States to “do something,” it might be worth the modest cost. But America’s political culture demands that policies be successful (and in reasonably short order), especially during an election year. If the United States were to supply arms to the rebels to little discernible end, the calls of “do something” would rapidly shift to “do more.” After all, if we’re willing to take action, shouldn’t we have the will to succeed?
There are almost always additional measures that nations such as the United States can apply against countries such as Syria—more assets, creative tactics—that offer the seductive appeal of a potential victory. Hence the risk of strategy creep: a dollop more military assistance here, perhaps a few supposedly noncommittal sorties from an aircraft carrier to augment rebel efforts, and soon we find ourselves fully committed.
The United States has been in this position before. On January 15, 1999, Serbs attacked the Kosovar village of Racak, killing at least forty-five civilians. This massacre, which the U.S. ambassador called an “unspeakable atrocity” and a “crime against humanity,” was one of the events that propelled NATO into launching Operation Allied Force against the government of Slobodan Milosevic.
NATO expected to engage in an air campaign of several days at most. Even if the air campaign led to no change of heart on the part of the Serbs, the plan was to declare that Milosevic and the Serbs had been punished. But shortly after the NATO air campaign began, the Serbs escalated their depredations against the Kosovar Albanians, generating hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. With the situation in Kosovo now far worse than it had been before NATO involvement, the United States realized it was effectively committed to an effort to compel Milosevic to back down using air power alone. And the process of strategy creep began.
Instead of lasting less than a week, the NATO effort continued for seventy-eight days. Faced with the prospect of stalemate or even failure, NATO air planners shifted their strategy a number of times, adding targets such as industrial complexes owned by Milosevic supporters. Despite these strategic shifts, NATO never hit upon a plan that could guarantee a positive outcome. And the fact that Operation Allied Force led to a satisfactory result was due partly to luck, when the Russians decided to join Western efforts to convince Milosevic to change his mind.
To answer the chorus that the West must “do something,” we need to keep the following in mind: Are we prepared to engage in a multiyear reconstruction and policing effort, similar to the recent U.S. experience in Iraq? NATO troops are in Kosovo to this day, twelve years later; are we willing to make a similar commitment in Syria?
Obama is wise to recognize the risk of strategy creep in Syria and to avoid taking the easy out of offering arms to the rebels. There is no realistic reason to believe such measures would lead to a positive conclusion in the short or even medium term. Instead, such a policy likely would lead to a sense of American commitment, with all the impetus for escalation to reach something approaching success.
If the United States were to embrace more aggressive policies at the outset, that would be a debate worth having. But inadequate half measures risk the worst of both worlds: failure to improve the situation in Syria while forcing the United States into strategic expansion in order to avoid failure.
Andrew Stigler is an associate professor in the National Security Affairs Department of the Naval War College. The views expressed are his own.