Each day now brings another worrying development in Syria. A Navy jet downs a Syrian plane — the first air-to-air combat the U.S. has been involved in since 1999 — and Russia declares that coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates will be targeted. Iran launches cruise missiles into the eastern part of the country. American forces shoot down an Iranian UAV. A Russian jet comes within five feet of an Air Force recon aircraft and then, the following day, a NATO jet approaches a plane carrying the Russian foreign minister.
What is going on?
In large part, the escalation in eastern Syria has to do with the collapse of ISIS as American-affiliated Kurds and rebels besiege Raqqa while Syrian Army forces advance along the Euphrates from the west. Once Raqqa is taken, the fighting will shift toward ISIS territory further to the southeast, around the provincial capital of Deir ez-Zor and a large stretch of the border with Iraq. This area is of considerable importance to Iran, allied with the Syrian government and Russia, which is keenly aware that if Assad’s forces secure the border, it will create a Shiite-friendly territory stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Mohamad Baizzi, analyzing the situation in The Atlantic, notes that controlling the border would mean controlling the highway from Baghdad to Damascus. “With these gains,” says Baizzi, “Iran and its allies will carve out a ‘Shiite crescent’ extending from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, and into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military force.”
Because America is anxious to avoid such a development, the conflict has rapidly escalated over just the last few weeks — so rapidly, in fact, that it seems to have caught Western media by surprise. The emergence of a Shiite crescent would be one of the most important developments in the Middle East in years; the chances of an accidental conflict between the U.S. and Iran or Russia in the Middle East are higher than they have ever been; American commitments in the region are expanding so fast that, as David French points out, we have effectively begun to occupy Syrian territory. Yet there has been remarkably little attention paid to any of this in the press, as the fixation over everything Trump-related has effectively pushed Syria to the back pages.
Since the Syrian civil war began six years ago, the question of American intervention has largely been shaped by our experiences in Iraq and Yugoslavia. The pro-interventionist camp has historically argued the case for a humanitarian intervention, whether in the form of the no-fly zones that the U.N. imposed on Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, or in the form of targeted air strikes such as those employed by Clinton in Kosovo and Obama in Libya. These interventions offer an appealing model, because they allow for the possibility of saving lives without any commitment to the sort of regime change that has become associated with the failures of the Iraq War. An article by Shadi Hamid from a few months ago provides a good illustration of the argument. Hamid makes the case for a middle-of-the-road intervention: “There is the danger,” Hamid says, “of seeing airstrikes as a low-risk catch-all solution, a kind of military pixie-dust. At the same time, though not everything is an Iraq-style invasion.” Hamid cites both Bosnia and Libya as examples of what American involvement in Syria might look like.
Critics of America’s Syria policy have tended to make the opposite case: that increasing American entanglement in the conflict would be impractical, would risk American lives, and would ultimately degenerate into an Iraq War–style insurgency that consumes enormous amounts of blood and treasure with little payoff. Any action large enough to unseat Assad, this line of thinking goes, would morally commit America to a costly, politically tenuous policy of nation-building that would not ultimately benefit the Syrian people.
There are hawks and doves in this dispute, but they are fighting on ideological terms that don’t fit the on-the-ground reality of the Syrian conflict.
For the last six years this has been a robust and informative debate, yet it bears almost no relevance to the current situation in Syria, which, as reporting in Foreign Policy makes clear, pits White House officials who want to commit to a broader war on Iran’s proxies in the region against Pentagon officials who believe that such an involvement is too risky. In this case, intervention would be aimed at furthering American policy in the region, and non-intervention at averting international conflict.
In other words, the stakes here are completely different than they were in Iraq or Bosnia. A successful conflict on the lines envisaged by the White House would be a victory for American interests, not a humanitarian success. It would deprive Iran of a vital corridor that it could otherwise use as leverage in the Middle East, while preventing Assad’s government from controlling the crucial border with Iraq. Indirectly, it would also be a victory in a proxy war with Russia, which is allied with Assad and has invested considerable resources in propping him up over the last several years. The uncontrollable quagmire envisioned by the Pentagon, meanwhile, would increase the risk of any number of international crises, including land conflict with Iran, a total breakdown of relations between the U.S. and Russia, and a broadening of the regional sectarian conflict between Iran-aligned Shiites and Saudi-aligned Sunnis.
The dynamics in Syria feel so new, then, because they are fundamentally so old. We have become so accustomed to dealing with a particular, very modern type of conflict — the interventionist wars of Bosnia and Iraq or the anti-terrorist actions in Afghanistan and, initially, in Syria — that the reality of a more traditional conflict is now foreign to us. There are hawks and doves in this dispute, but they are fighting on ideological terms that don’t fit the on-the-ground reality of the Syrian conflict. Neither camp really knows which position to take with regard to the complexities of the unfolding crisis, so there is little discussion of our current policy of creeping escalation.
This is unfortunate, given all that’s riding on the conflict’s outcome: The impoverished debate over our involvement in Raqqa could result in a war — or a peace — that we regret for decades. As major powers such as Russia and China begin to reassert themselves on the international scene, weakening America’s post-Cold War hegemony, such difficult choices may become more frequent and the ideologies that formed in the Iraq years increasingly outdated. It is an alarming possibility — but one we should be prepared for.