The moral of the story

President Obama made Ash Carter’s testimony from Tuesday official today, announcing that America is putting a small Special Forces detachment on the ground in Syria. They’ll be advising and training, uh, somebody, and probably mixing it up with ISIS a little although nobody’s allowed to say so explicitly. They’ll be working with “local forces,” which is a completely meaningless term in a conflict like the Syrian war, but chances are that means they’ll be helping the Kurds progress toward ISIS’s “capital,” Raqqa.

Wikipedia’s Syrian Civil War article includes a pretty good and frequently updated map (by users NordNordWest and Spesh531); you can see how close Kurdish territory (yellow) is to Raqqa (in the north central part of the map)
There are more things that could potentially go wrong with this plan than I can keep track of at any given moment, but among the biggest risks (aside from the obvious potential for these forces to wind up taking fire either from ISIS or — accidentally, one presumes — from a Russian or Turkish airstrike) is the possibility that the Kurds may not want to fight and die liberating an Arab city like Raqqa, and/or the possibility that having a mostly-Kurdish army advancing, presumably violently, through mostly-Arab countryside is going to push more locals toward ISIS. Carter says that the Kurds will be fighting alongside something he calls the “Syrian Arab Coalition,” which would help mitigate the Kurdish-ness of the attacking force, but nobody outside the Obama administration (and, more worrying, nobody inside Syria) seems to be able to figure out whether the “Syrian Arab Coalition” is a real thing or not.

Obama is taking heat from all sides over this decision, as you might expect. He’s getting heat from skeptics, who think this sounds an awful lot like the kind of incremental escalations that can build upon each other until the next thing you know you’re fighting a full-blown war halfway around the world and you can’t really figure out exactly how you got there. And he’s also getting heat from interventionists, who appreciate that this is Doing Something, sure, but are convinced that it’s not Doing Enough. Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, who seems to avoid either camp (though he sounds like he’d be all for Doing More if it were in any way apparent what that “more” should be), called Obama’s reconfiguration of the Syrian operation the “Goldilocks strategy” in an editorial he wrote for on Tuesday:

So, perhaps understandably, the President is looking for an effective Goldilocks strategy — not too hot and not too cold when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But he’s unlikely to find it. Military steps that might alter the battlefield balance (the deployment of thousands of ground forces, attacks against Assad regime leadership targets, aggressive no-fly zones) are seen as too risky. Cautious steps have the drawback that they won’t really change anything.

All this suggests that the United States is stuck. It can’t transform the current situation in Iraq and Syria, but we can’t leave, either. And so we wait. Doing what we can to kill the bad jihadis in Syria before they kill us at home, limiting ISIS gains in Iraq, even planning to help local Iraqi and Syrian forces to regain ground.

I find this analogy interesting, but I think Miller gets the story of Goldilocks wrong. Presumably he’s arguing that Obama is looking for Baby Bear’s porridge, the “just right” solution, when it comes to Syria (Iraq and Afghanistan too, I guess, but Miller’s piece was about Syria). We don’t want to intervene too little and eat cold porridge, but we also don’t want to intervene too much and eat the porridge that’s too hot. But, you know, Goldilocks had a fourth choice: she could have not gone in to the Bears’ house to begin with. In fact, isn’t that kind of the moral of the story?

PS: I wanted to flag one last thing because Miller links to it, which is an analysis of the US-coalition air campaign by Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko, in which he writes this:

This is evident given that the United States is absolutely no closer to achieving this than when the first bombs fell 14 months ago. On Tuesday, Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for the U.S. military intervention against the Islamic State, proclaimed, “We are able to eliminate [Islamic State] fighters as fast as they’re able to recruit them,” and agreed with a journalist’s estimate that 20,000 fighters have been killed so far. In other words, the Islamic State has exactly the same fighting capabilities now as they did 14 months ago. If the size of an adversarial force you intend to “ultimately destroy” remains static, despite 7,323 airstrikes, then it could be as much an indication of their success as it is yours.

Look, I’m not only a skeptic of the air campaign’s success, I’ve written very recently about the possibility that it’s actually doing more harm than good by increasing ISIS’s ability to recruit locally. But what Zenko writes there is just a little too simplistic. “Fighting capabilities” is a completely subjective concept that can only really be estimated by what’s happening on the ground, where ISIS has actually been losing territory. You can’t just add up the number of fighters a force has, compare them to whatever number it had at some time in the past, and say “welp, looks like their fighting capabilities haven’t changed.” Has ISIS lost the weapons, equipment, and infrastructure that it needs to wage war, or has it actually been gaining and improving those things? Is its hold on local Sunni populations weakening, strengthening, or staying the same? Is it replacing the fighters it loses with trained and seasoned soldiers, with earnest local recruits, or with angsty teenage dipshits from overseas? What are ISIS’s actual fighting capabilities at the moment? I don’t claim to know (although, again, this is an explicitly expansionist enterprise that has been losing territory, so that tells you something), but I am quite sure that a simple headcount of ISIS fighters won’t give you the answer.

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