There was always going to be a reckoning. When President Obama began the American war against ISIS in 2014 — a belated and necessary step to stop ISIS’s blitzkrieg across Iraq — there was a lingering question: Then what? If and when we defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, what comes next? Ideally, American allies would defeat the world’s most vicious terrorists, the warring parties in Syria would then have the space to reach a political settlement, and a genocidal civil war would finally end.
Yet when ideals meet the hatred and confusion of the Middle East, ideals always lose. So rather than staring peace in the face, we’re not only raising the risk of direct and sustained confrontation with Syria (and its chief ally, Russia), we’re inching toward an outright invasion and extended occupation of northern Syria. All without congressional approval. All without meaningful public debate.
To understand the dangers ahead, it’s important to understand where we’ve been. At the risk of oversimplification, let’s break down America’s military involvement in Syria into three main stages reflecting the gradual evolution of the conflict.
Stage one was the emergency deployment of military force to prevent the collapse both of our Kurdish allies in Iraq and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. At the peak of the ISIS blitzkrieg in the summer of 2014, there was real concern that America might suffer a military disaster not unlike the fall of Saigon, except with ISIS invaders more bloodthirsty and far more directly dangerous to Americans than were the Communist North Vietnamese.
In the initial phase there was no immediate conflict with the Assad regime, because Assad was on the ropes, fighting for his life in cities far from ISIS’s centers of power. The Syrian civil war contained multiple conflicts — Assad versus American-backed rebels, Assad versus jihadists (with the line between American-backed rebels and jihadists blurry indeed), rebels versus rebels, ISIS versus virtually everybody, and the American-led coalition versus ISIS.
Stage two began with Vladimir Putin’s decisive entry into the conflict. Only the gullible believed he had arrived to fight ISIS. Whereas America’s goals were nebulous and idealistic (beat ISIS and somehow make peace), his goals were brutal and simple (crush Assad’s enemies and win the war), and he set about accomplishing his goals with ruthless efficiency. He largely left ISIS alone and instead bombed American-backed rebels and other anti-Assad militias into the dust. Gradually, the front stabilized. Gradually, Assad won key battles and recaptured key cities.
In the meantime, American-backed allies made progress in the North. Kurdish and Arab militias — with American support on the ground and in the air — advanced to the outskirts of Raqqa. As ISIS began to crumble and Assad triumphed in the south and west, it became clear that instead of a potpourri of armies and militias and conflicts, the civil war was moving toward a climax where just two distinct forces held the balance of power — the Russian-allied Syrian regime and the American-allied forces holding the north.
That brings us to stage three, the present day. The key warring parties increasingly face a stark choice — agree to a de facto partition of the country or inch toward a great-power conflict. It works like this: As American-allied forces and Assad’s regime steadily defeat and degrade their enemies, their zones of control expand, thus expanding the potential for direct conflict. As American forces advance with their local allies, they also increase their chances of direct encounters with Assad’s forces. In response, Assad is testing America’s commitment to defend not just our own troops but also (and this is quite important) our allies as well. A map of the conflict from the Washington Post shows the territorial reality:
Four times times in the last month U.S. forces have directly engaged Syrian forces that were threatening either American troops or American-allied forces. The most dramatic encounter happened this weekend when a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian plane after it bombed American-backed troops. The official American statement was telling:
The Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat.
Let’s put this in plain English. American forces and American allies are not only taking territory from ISIS, they’re holding that territory against regime forces. There’s a word for what happens when a foreign power takes and holds territory without the consent of the sovereign state — that word is “invasion.” In many ways, current American policy is a lighter-footprint, less ambitious version of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. We’re using local allies, but our own boots are on the ground, and we’re directly defending our forces and our allies from threats from Syria’s own government.
I happen to believe that a strategy of defeat, hold, and negotiate represents the best hope for a satisfactory solution to the Syrian crisis. In other words, defeat ISIS, help our allies hold the territory they’ve taken (while clearly communicating our intentions to Russia and Syria), and then negotiate a permanent solution that protects our interests. Russia and Assad would have to be insane to attempt to dislodge Americans by force, and clarity will decrease the chances for great-power conflict.
It’s past time for a true congressional vote on American engagement in Syria.
As it is, we have not (publicly, at least) articulated our strategic goals in Syria. Ambiguity breeds confusion. Confusion increases the risk of miscalculation and conflict. While there is not yet a crisis between Russia and the U.S., the risk of a deadly incident is rising. Russia’s decision to treat coalition aircraft “as targets” when allied aircraft operate west of the Euphrates while Russian combat planes are in the air isn’t exactly a shoot-down promise, but it does signal our increasing peril.
It’s past time for a true congressional vote on American engagement in Syria. Any argument that previous use-of-force resolutions applicable to Iraq or al-Qaeda also apply to the current conflict evaporate the instant American forces find themselves holding foreign territory in hostile opposition to the foreign sovereign. There is no credible argument that any current authorization allows American forces to occupy a single square inch of Syria without the consent of its government.
The Constitution cannot be discarded when it’s inconvenient, and inertia is no substitute for strategy. America’s necessary war against ISIS is evolving into a Syrian invasion. Handled correctly, this evolution could lead to a better outcome in the conflict (we’re way past any “ideal” resolution), but this evolution requires public debate and congressional consent. The risks are profound. Long-term entanglement looms. Let’s have the debate the Constitution requires.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.