The United States has always been involved in the Syrian Civil War, just not in physical combat. Since the war began in 2011, American resources such as food and vehicles were given to Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but soon the United States began providing training and intelligence as well. Former President Barack Obama has even gone so far to say that “we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq” . The United States has even gone so far as to launch air strikes on bases in Syria, which were followed by beheadings of two Americans, James Foley and Steven, by ISIL. While there was a clear reason to place ground troops in Syria prior to the fall of Aleppo, the question whether or not we should have is still up for debate. The United States does not have a good historic record of intervention, especially in the Middle East, so who is to say that military intervention in Syria would have yielded any better results? Not to mention the stake Russia has in this conflict and the possible clashes the United States will have with them if they had decided to intervene. But the fact that at the time, many Americans had been expressing increasingly more concern over the war (especially considering the involvement of ISIL) had incentivized policymakers like Trump to take action. Aaryaman Sheoran intends to convince you that the serious U.S. military action in Syria was not only necessary but also the most commonsense decision the United States could have made regarding this issue. On the other side, Sam Fraser writes to emphasize the negative sides to military intervention as well as to encourage the continuation of President Obama’s policy of focusing military action on ISIS and avoiding direct conflict with the Assad regime.
Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has left nearly 500,000 people dead and has displaced 11 million more. It is the principal cause of a refugee crisis that has shaken Europe, and has provided new opportunities and havens for violent jihadist groups like the Islamic State (or ISIS) and al-Qaeda. For these reasons and more, the Syrian Civil War is widely viewed as the worst humanitarian and geopolitical crisis of our day.
Of the many parties involved in this war, none bear more responsibility for the staggering human suffering than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian enablers. Assad’s forces have not only caused the vast majority of deaths, but have also repeatedly employed barbaric tools like chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and they have exercised merciless tactics such as targeted bombings of hospitals and aid convoys.
Given all this, it is not surprising that so many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are calling for a forceful U.S. military intervention against the Assad regime. Despite the moral force of these calls, however, they ought to be met with serious skepticism and should ultimately be rejected.
In deciding whether to intervene militarily in a conflict such as this, the obvious question we must ask is whether our increased involvement can actually improve the situation. Those who advocate intervention clearly think so, but this belief is merely a product of the same failures of understanding that have lead us into so many disastrous military interventions in the past.
"Those who advocate intervention clearly think (increased involvement can actually improve the situation), but this belief is merely a product of the same failures of understanding that have led us into so many disastrous military interventions in the past."
As one Obama administration official had explained, in order for an intervention to be successful, its goals must be “rooted in the realities on the ground” . In other words, any action the U.S. could take or could have taken in this conflict must come from the starting point of the actual political and military situation in Syria, not from some fantasy scenario better suited to our interests. Those who have advocated intervention, unfortunately, seem to have their thinking rooted in a scenario that is far removed from the reality on the ground.
For example, leading proponents of intervention such as former general John Allen suggested such steps as a “comprehensive train-and-equip program” for Syria’s “moderate” rebel groups . As nice as this sounds, the Obama administration had already been doing this for years, yet to little effect. To this, Allen answered that we must simply reduce the vetting of these groups . Such vetting, however, is designed to ensure that the “moderates” we arm are indeed moderate.
Given the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition, it is very difficult to completely avoid arming the wrong groups, and we’ve already seen examples of U.S. weaponry ending up in the hands of extremists. Considering that violent jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, currently make up a significant part of the opposition’s fighting force, it would be extremely hard to strengthen the opposition enough for it to effectively oppose Assad without also empowering extremists. As we once saw with the Afghan mujahadeen, this could certainly come to haunt us in the future.
Beyond providing further assistance to the Syrian opposition, many have put forth proposals that would lead to the direct involvement of the U.S. military in the conflict. While few have advocated engaging Assad head-on, the idea of establishing a no-fly zone or a “safe zone” in some part of the country has become extremely popular, enjoying the support of many foreign policy experts as well as several of the 2016 presidential candidates.
This proposal would involve using U.S. aircraft to prevent Syrian and Russian military planes from flying within a designated zone, intercepting and shooting down violators if necessary. Ostensibly, such a zone would give Syrian civilians a place to take refuge from regime airstrikes, and under some proposals, would also give moderate rebels a place to organize and train safely.
The first obvious problem with this is that it would set the U.S. military up for direct conflict with Russia. It is unlikely that Russia would back down in the face of greater U.S. military presence, or that Russian aircraft would leave a no-fly zone untested. If the U.S. were to shoot down Russian planes, then the current proxy war could develop into a full-scale conflict between the world’s two foremost nuclear powers. As one administration official has said, “You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against the Russians ” .
Furthermore, it would take more than the U.S. Air Force to ensure the safety of Syrian civilians in this zone. Without the presence of numerous U.S. or allied ground troops, civilians would be left vulnerable to a ground assault by regime forces, creating the potential for a repeat of the massacre that occurred in the Srebrenica “safe zone” in Bosnia in 1995, when 8,000 civilians were murdered right under the noses of U.N. peacekeepers. The Pentagon has estimated that between 15,000 and 30,000 U.S. soldiers would be required to prevent any such attack . On top of all this, a safe zone would only temporarily address the suffering of Syrian civilians, and it would do nothing to hasten the end of the war — if anything, it would prolong the conflict.
The final question to be asked is what we would do in the extremely unlikely scenario that all of these actions were successful. Even if we can strengthen rebel groups enough to successfully oppose Assad, how do we get them to unify, and how do we ensure that their political goals align with our own? Furthermore, if we achieve the stated objective of forcing Assad and Russia to accept a diplomatic end to the conflict and to accept a “political transition,” as interventionists have called it, what should make us believe that we can form a stable government in a country torn by ethnic and sectarian strife, on top of five years of brutal civil war? If we were not successful doing so after decades-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, then why would Syria prove any better? More likely, whatever government is produced by a “political transition” would return to the ills of Syria’s current government, or perhaps would adopt some novel form of evil.
All told, America simply does not have the power to fix Syria. All plans for intervention rest on the assumption that our greater involvement will improve the situation, when it simply cannot. However imperfect, it is best we continue the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria, focusing on fighting ISIS, providing all possible humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, and pushing for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict. Whatever settlement may eventually be reached is sure to end the war on Russia and Assad’s terms. However unfortunate that may be, a better outcome is not in the cards.
In order to understand why there was a need for U.S. troops in Syria, we must consider what would have happened without any foreign intervention. The already-weakened Free Syrian Army and SDF would have collapsed, leaving a power vacuum that would have been filled by the Al-Assad regime or ISIS, the former of which had been known to use chemical weapons against its own population , and the latter genocide . Russian airstrikes, Turkish forces, and Al-Qaeda affiliates would have targeted moderate rebels against the Al-Assad regime and threatened the very existence of a democratic and secular Syria. The only way these threats could have been countered is by American intervention in the form of ground troops.
"the U.S. and its allies were bound by both international law and basic morality to send ground troops into Syria, pushing back ISIS and overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad."
The United States has already been exerting power in Syria by providing local rebels air support and bombarding ISIS bases . However, given the complex war in Syria, bombing ISIS often means strengthening the Al-Assad regime, the Al-Nusra front (an Al-Qaeda affiliate), or even Hezbollah, none of which can be credited as an organization looking to rebuild Syria through secular or liberal institutions . Instead, these non-state actors, representing Russian, extremist Sunni, and Iranian interests, seek to form Syria as a satellite state for their sponsors. In contrast, the U.S.-led coalition, comprising both liberal democracies and Arab states, would have intervened under the Responsibility to Protect, defending all of Syria’s population from further tragedy. The Responsibility to Protect, a global commitment made by all U.N. member states in 2005, implores its signatories to intervene in states where the government has failed to shield its population from crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide . Therefore, the U.S. and its allies were bound by both international law and basic morality to send ground troops into Syria, pushing back the ISIS and overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad. Doing so would have put an end to the ceaseless barrage of barrel bombs (which is illegal under international law and seen as a war crime) suffered by the citizens of Aleppo .
While preventing egregious crimes against the Syrian people, American troops in Syria would have also bolstered the local rebel groups, which had proven to be inefficient when engaging the superior firepower of the Syrian Armed Forces or the fanatics of ISIS. Indeed, except the Kurdish Peshmerga forces (when fighting inside Kurdistan), no rebel groups have withstood large scale offensives from either ISIS or the Al-Assad regime . This have forced the moderate rebel armies to cooperate with other groups which have performed admirably against one or both of the antagonists, such as the Al-Qaeda backed Al-Nusra front, which should not be allowed anywhere near the seat of power in Syria. The presence of well trained, better equipped, and superbly supported American troops would have proven to be critical to improving both the morale and the fighting ability of the Syrian opposition.
The presence of foreign troops in the nation would have also allowed previously-subdued forces to challenge ISIS occupied areas. Like in the Anbar Awakening of 2006, when Sunni Iraqi tribes in Al-Qaeda held provinces balked under its mediaeval laws and rose in armed rebellion, internal strife could crush the spirit of ISIS and its ability to govern the territory it captured. This is especially possible in the Arak region, which was only captured in June 2016 and boasts a strong Yazidi and Kurdish community.
While providing hope for a better Syria, the presence of American troops would have had the additional benefit of offsetting the increasing Russian dominance in the region, acting as a foil to Mr. Putin’s expansionist strategy. The Kremlin had upped the ante several weeks ago by launching more strikes against the liberal opponents of Mr Assad and stationed an aircraft carrier in the Middle East to reinforce its air dominance in Syria. Moscow sees the Syrian conflict as a cold war-style proxy war in the larger overall setting of the chess match between Russia and the West, whereby victory for Mr. Bashar Al-Assad would provide a strategic advantage. Such wanton brinkmanship and delusions of a "global great game" should have been matched by an overwhelming show of strength, showing Mr. Putin that, though the U.S. acts to further the interests of the Syrian people, America remains the foremost superpower.
American ground troops in Syria could have also browbeat Turkey into acting with greater responsibility toward the Kurdish population inside its borders. The Kurds, who demand greater autonomy in Turkey, have been ruthlessly attacked by President Erdogan in both his own borders and in Syria . The Kurds have also proven to be the U.S.’s reliable ally in both Iraq and Syria and the U.S. officially endorses greater autonomy for Kurdistan in Iraq. Placing American troops on the Syrian-Turkish border, ethnically Kurdish territory, would have reaffirmed the alliance between the U.S. and the Kurds, and may have provided the impetus needed by the Peshmerga to battle ISIS beyond Kurdistan.
American-led intervention would have also permitted greater participation by the Arab nations in the war against ISIS, many of whom are unwilling to singularly shoulder the responsibility of launching ground attacks against the Islamic State for fear of retaliation. A coalition comprising Arabic nations and liberal democracies would disprove ISIS’s claim of their war being jihad against the infidels, as well as providing valuable local intelligence. Statements hinting at coordinated ground offensives have already been made by Jordan, and are backed by the UAE . Such intervention in Syria could have pushed ISIS back into Iraq, where its headquarters, Mosul, is already under siege and was expected to fall by early 2017, effectively demoting ISIS from a pseudo-state to an Islamic terror group .
Voices in the U.S. have already been calling for troops to be sent to Syria, as President Trump had promised to send troops into Syria to defeat ISIS before the fall of Aleppo, and shared this view with Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, and Lindsey Graham  . This sentiment is echoed by a majority of Americans, who in a poll conducted by CNN, expressed that they would like to see American troops in Syria .
This leads one to deduce that strategically placing American troops on Syrian ground would have been a commonsense policy. It would have prevented the execution of genocide by ISIS and supports the moderate rebel groups’ bid for power. And, frankly, it would have ensured that brutal war crimes committed by a despotic regime run by an unhinged character finally stop, and that his sponsor would have seen the world through a lens other than his KGB-tinted glasses.
REBUTTAL - AGAINST
While Mr. Fraser’s argument is superficially coherent and seemingly sensible, upon close analysis, his argument for no military action in Syria begins to break down, lacking any logical semblance. The U.S. should have intervened in Syria with its military to curb the extremists, given the moderates a fighting chance, and brought freedom and democracy to the nation.
Unwittingly, Mr. Fraser himself makes the argument for military action in Syria, claiming that a no-fly zone would be “left vulnerable to…regime forces” unless U.S. troops guarded it. Despite his claims that such a safe zone would have only prolonged the conflict, he concedes that it would have provided relief to the millions of struggling Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. This should be reason enough to establish a safe zone, as the primary objective of military intervention in Syria was to protect Syrian citizens from the excesses of war. Though he argues that such action would have only prolonged the war, prolonging a war which Mr. Assad was on the verge of winning would have allowed Syria a chance at overthrowing the Damascus regime and perhaps an opportunity for real democracy and hope.
Furthermore, Mr. Fraser argues that with the lack of intelligence about forces on the ground, arming moderates is difficult, and some extremist groups are inevitably given munitions. The best method to counter this absence of information is for U.S. operatives to be present in Syria, where they will be better able to judge both if a rebel group is moderate and whether it needs military assistance. This, much like the rest of Mr. Fraser’s argument, points to the need for U.S. intervention in Syria.
This paradox in the argument against military intervention in Syria is perhaps rooted in Mr. Fraser’s pessimistic view on the prospect of nation-building in Syria, given the U.S.’s failures to do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, he ignored the fact that Syria is fundamentally different from Iraq and Afghanistan in that its population is largely culturally, linguistically, and ethnically homogenous (90.3% of the population is Arab)  . Pre-civil war Syria had a literacy rate and life expectancy (measuring sticks of a nation’s social development and, by extension, its ability to form stable governments) far higher than the global average, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fact almost matches that of the U.S. . Most importantly, the revolution in Syria has been an extension of the Arab Spring, led by Syrian citizens who wanted greater freedom and prosperity, much like their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. This makes it inherently more popular than U.S.-led regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, which deposed governments which faced no domestic opposition. As a result, any comparison between the U.S.-led nation-building of the last decade and the possibility of success in Syria would be meaningless. A more apt comparison might be the U.S.-led intervention in the Kosovo War — the liberal local rebels ousted Slobodan Milosevic, their Russian-backed leader, in a multifaceted conflict, leading to an unqualified success for interventionism and democracy.
"...any comparison between the U.S.-led nation-building of the last decade and the possibility of success in Syria would be meaningless."
Most importantly, it must be noted that while the Obama administration took an exceedingly cautious approach toward interventionism, President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he intends to put ‘America First’ and would be willing to undertake a more decisive foreign policy in the Middle East to counter any threat and, while no clear policy has been outlined, it would be unreasonable to discount the possibility of a White House-sponsored surge in American troops on the ground to the number where a definitive action could have been taken inside Syria to bring in a prospective democratic future.
Therefore, the fact remains that U.S. intervention in Syria would have been a commonsense policy to both secure the lives of millions of Syrians stuck in a ruthlessly violent conflict and build a better Syria when the war is over.
REBUTTAL - FOR
Most advocates for increased military intervention in Syria pushed a range of limited actions that would strengthen rebel forces and weaken the Assad regime without engaging American troops in a full-scale ground war against the Syrian government, its Russian backers, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and a range of other violent jihadist groups operating in the country. Simply laying this in clear terms is enough to demonstrate what an utter fiasco it surely be. Despite that, this is exactly the kind of intervention that Mr. Sheoran has decided to advocate.
Mr. Sheoran posits that the introduction of a significant U.S. ground force into Syria could have defeated ISIS and al-Nusra, toppled the Assad regime, pushed back Russian influence in the Middle East, and ultimately allowed for the rebuilding of Syria in a liberal, democratic image. Such predictions make the invasion of Iraq look well thought-out by comparison. In this scenario, the U.S. military would be intervening in a many-sided war, allying itself with the weakest and most fractured side. We would set ourselves up to be taking on four or more separate enemies at once, depending on how you count, and one of those enemies would be a bellicose and nuclear-armed Russia.
Despite what Mr. Sheoran says, the presence of U.S. troops in Northern Syria would have only further complicated the Kurdish question. While the Kurds have certainly been a reliable ally in the fight against ISIS, they have their own political objectives that do not necessarily align with those of the U.S.. If some kind of U.S./Kurdish/FSA alliance really was able to topple the Assad regime, would the Kurds be given an independent state along the Turkish border? If so, we could certainly expect a confrontation with Turkey, which is stridently opposed the greater Kurdish autonomy and power in the region. Such a conflict, even if it did not mean combat between U.S. and Turkish troops, would likely lead to the permanent loss of Turkey as an ally and NATO member.
"If the U.S. was able to oust the Assad regime, what could we expect the new Syria to look like? Historical parallels paint a bleak picture."
If the U.S. was able to oust the Assad regime, what could we expect the new Syria to look like? Historical parallels paint a bleak picture. In an attempt to build a secular, liberal and democratic Syria, we could end up with an extended American occupation, à la Iraq. In this case, the U.S. and whatever government they attempt to install would most likely face on one side a stubborn and well-armed insurgency by ex-regime forces, supported by Hezbollah, Iran, and possibly Russia as well. On the other side, we could expect a Sunni insurgency by remnants of ISIS and al-Nusra. Given that Syria is already a nation torn by sectarian strife and years of civil war, with no history of democracy, the odds of survival for this nascent liberal government would be next to zero.
Alternatively, the U.S. could make a hasty exit in the mold of Libya. In this case, we could expect Syria to quickly revert to bloody civil war and failed state status, with the same bad actors vying for control.
In addition to the probability that Mr. Sheoran’s proposed intervention would be an utter disaster, the justifications he gives for this action do not stand up to scrutiny. For one, the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine could not be applied in this case, and certainly does not oblige the U.S. to intervene. For an R2P intervention to be legal, it must be approved by the U.N. Security Council, meaning that Russia would have to vote to allow U.S. forces to topple its ally, and to go to war with its own troops. Furthermore, one of the criteria for R2P is a significant chance of success in ending a conflict and protecting civilians, which for the reasons described above, does not exist here.
Lastly, U.S. public opinion, contrary to Mr. Sheoran’s assertions, does not support intervention. The poll Mr. Sheoran cites shows support for the limited use of U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS, not a full-scale invasion force to topple Assad. Such a commitment would be guaranteed to inspire fierce public opposition, as did Obama’s limited proposal for airstrikes after the “red line” incident of 2013 .
The war in Syria is a tragedy on par with many of the worst humanitarian crises of the latter half of the 20th century. The picture Mr. Sheoran has painted — of a liberal, democratic Syria born of U.S. intervention — is certainly much prettier. Nonetheless, such a picture is too far removed from reality to be attainable. If the U.S. had chosen to chase this delusion, we would have only stood to make a bad situation worse.
Sources and Notes
Featured Image Source: "Kurdish YPG Fighter" by Kurdishstruggle — Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5571/15096084297_fedec1ac0a_b.jpg