The Challenges of Limited War 2.0
It is telling that in a presidential primary election season marked by an historic degree of divergence between the candidates, they are virtually united on one topic: American intervention in Iraq and Syria. While no candidate suggests that we completely back down from conflict with ISIS, there have been no serious calls for full-scale engagement in the region either. This reflects a new understanding of war, one shaped by both the prolonged conflicts of the past and a continued belief that America needs to be a global leader.
The path to this point can be traced to the aftermath of the Korean War, when a debate ensued about the future of armed intervention. Two dueling positions emerged from this debate: the “never-again” and “limited war” camps. The never-agains argued for a binary choice about the use of American force -- not at all, or enough to ensure decisive victory. Those of the limited war camp countered that the United States would be forced to intervene in regional conflicts to protect American interests in the future, and should prepare for such engagements.
While the never-again camp became vocal again following the Vietnam War and once more during and after the second Iraq War, there can be no doubt that limited war is an accepted strategy today. But whereas the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were limited wars in the Vietnam/Korea mold -- prolonged stalemates that required a relatively high degree of commitment -- the intervention in Libya, and more recently in the Syria/Iraq theater have been of an entirely new nature. Limited war has become more limited than ever. Precision airstrikes, drones, and increasing special forces use allow the military to conduct actions with little manpower and few, if any, American fatalities. Instead of concluding from past conflicts that American military power is best employed sparingly, but overwhelmingly, it is being employed more frequently and with less commitment than ever.
This result reflects a compromise that seems to cross party lines. While no one wants to be drawn into another Iraq War, armed rebels waving the banner of democracy in the face of dictatorship will be not yet be wholly dismissed. The “clean wars” conducted today are popular with voters and a new terminology of war has been developed: “surgical” airstrikes, “unmanned aerial vehicles”, and elite special forces “advisors”. For politicians, these actions are easy and reliable: no grieving families to call, no need to face the nation in despair. We can still be the world’s policemen, but without leaving the safety of our police cars.
The jury is still out as to whether or not this strategy can be successful. Libya certainly serves as dangerous warning sign. Coalition airstrikes did successfully oust Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, briefly bringing a democratically elected congress to power. After a short period of enforcing Islamic law and accomplishing little, however, this congress came crashing down into a renewed civil war, one that is ongoing and features an assortment of extremist groups.
With this failure in mind, our foreign policy confronts a dilemma. The list of limited war failures is far longer than the list of successes. The new “clean war” strategy failed in Libya, and has thus far been unsuccessful in Iraq and Syria. Only in coming months will all the tools of limited war 2.0 be employed: aiding and training rebels, increased airstrikes, and the deployment of advisors (already in Iraq, soon coming to Syria). It is possible that this strategy will prove successful, as President Obama promises. But if decade-long wars featuring large ground forces failed to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, will bombs and a handful of well-trained advisors really be expected to succeed in Iraq and Syria?
Accepting that the answer is likely “no,” the government needs to approach this war differently. To win without a substantial military commitment will require putting idealism aside and leveraging what the United States is willing to offer by choosing the right partners. While more reliable partners like France and other European nations are motivated to help, their role will be largely defined by ours (not the least because of their own highly limited military capabilities). Instead, the most important international partners to consider are Assad, the Free Syrian Army, Kurdistan, Turkey and Russia. All of these actors are linked, and their goals are often conflicting, if not mutually exclusive. By choosing the right partners, the United States may yet be able to shape this conflict. But along the way we will have to accept a new truth about American foreign policy -- without the will to wage a complete fight, political idealism will at times have to give way to realpolitik.
The first truth to swallow is that the current government of Turkey is not the United States’ friend in this conflict. At best, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s administration has tacitly supported ISIS by refusing to directly engage the group, all while allowing recruits to easily cross the border, and turning a blind eye towards oil sales on the Turkish black market. While it seems unlikely that the Turkish government is directly aiding the Islamic State, they have done nothing to stop it. Most importantly, however, their military attention has thus far been focused on two of the Islamic State’s primary adversaries: Kurdistan, and more recently, Russia. Kurdistan, populated by a people long neglected by the world community, has been perhaps ISIS’ most effective adversary on the ground. While facing accusations from Baghdad that they are using the war as a cover to grab territory in Northern Iraq, the relatively disciplined Peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) is in reality taking back their historical territory that the Iraqi government failed to defend. In this case, idealism and realpolitik mesh. Kurdistan and its new Syrian neighbor Rojava (favorably spotlighted in the New York Times this past week) have long been the progressive bulwarks of the region, especially compared to the regressive regime of Recep Erdogan. The Kurds deserve heavy American support in this conflict, and Turkish attempts to stop them (Erdogan’s government has been bombing Kurdistan for months) should face repercussions.
Turkey has also set itself against Assad and Putin, both pariahs in the Western community. Putin has rightly been condemned for his actions in Ukraine and Crimea. His interest in defeating ISIS, however, should be treated as a gift. Russia has a long-standing commitment to defeating Islamic extremism, and Putin appears willing to commit his military to a degree that the American government is not. The United States needs to follow François Hollande in reaching out to the Russian government. While we should not (nor is there a need to) embrace Putin’s values or tactics, bringing him into the fold tactically in Syria will allow Russia’s military action to be better directed towards our primary objective -- defeating ISIS.
This, of course, implicates Putin’s other objective -- supporting Bashar Al-Assad. This raises an entirely new topic, one that needs to be considered at length. To begin this conversation, there are some difficult truths that need to be accepted in Syria. The Free Syrian Army effectively does not exist. Little is known about these rebels, they have no clear leader, and there is no plan in place for stabilizing the region, much less putting a functioning government in place. The few rebels the United States tried to train were quickly decimated, and the program was abandoned. Furthermore, many of the armed rebels fighting Assad in Syria are confirmed to be part of Islamist groups, with a substantial number qualifying as “extremist.” This “army” is not ready or suitable for power, and without stability in Syria, Islamist groups will continue to operate with impunity. Although accepting Assad, now a well-documented war criminal, as a temporary leader of Syria will be a difficult step, there may not be a choice if no alternative resolution can be found. What seems most likely is a compromise brokered by the Russians whereby Assad steps down and another Alawite leader comes to power. Regardless, the American government’s policy needs to reflect the inevitability of this small minority group retaining their grip on the Syrian state.
This is the nature of the new American foreign policy in the Middle East. Even if the last War in Iraq was only moderately successful, the United States’ high degree of commitment allowed us to set the agenda. The same situation has been true in Afghanistan. During these conflicts, there was no question of allowing a dictator to return to power or allowing Russia to operate militarily without our permission. But the United States has embraced, at least for now, a type of limited-war never before seen. While our risks are now curtailed, so too is our ability to choose our partners and decide the region’s future. U.S. policy needs to reflect this new reality.