Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Carter indicated that additional troops might be deployed to Syria in the future. Secretary Carter’s remarks were highly nuanced. He made it clear that any additional US Forces going to Syria would be contingent on identifying legitimate host country partners to partner with. This discussion of potential deployment of troops, however, misses something important: what is the strategic objective we are trying to achieve?
Unless or until someone can clearly articulate what the objective is for Syria, then everything else being suggested is simply tactical whack a mole! I have yet to see anyone, American elected or appointed official, European elected or appointed official, pundits, commentators, the Syrians themselves, explain just what the goal is: beyond removing Assad. And removing Assad is not the objective, it is a way to the end. Until someone can delineate what happens once the fighting stops, we do not have a coherent policy. The same goes for dealing with the related mess in Iraq.
And without a coherent policy we cannot have a successful strategy. As a close friend and colleague likes to say: “policy cannot ask of strategy what policy will not provide.” These issues go to an important question that is all too often not asked: what does it take to win the peace? Winning on the battlefield is, comparatively, easy: find the enemy, fix them in place, and reduce their capacity/capability to continue to fight. This is easier, provided you have the numbers, the will, and the logistics in a conventional interstate war. It is far harder in an irregular conflict where war is being made among the people. But in both of these the ultimate issue is what happens once the fighting stops. Managing the post conflict reality is really the hard part.
We had a highly developed understanding of the need to answer this question during World War II. After watching what happened with how World War I was resolved, and the inability of the victors to secure the peace, we developed the Marshal Plan for Europe and a similar plan for Japan and other parts of the Pacific theater. The result is that, unlike WW I, the allies not only won the war, but they won the peace. This was partially by enabling the losers of WW II to also prosper and to seemingly become the long term winners of the peace.
Until or unless we develop an actual set of objectives for conflict prosecution, termination, and post conflict redevelopment and stability there is little point in doing anything other than providing support for refugees and trying to contain the situation. This includes supporting our allies and partners in the region in dealing with the refugee and extremism/terrorism situations that they are facing. Without a coherent description of what Syria and Iraq ultimately should become, and without actual, reliable host country partners to provide that vision to us and to work with us to achieve it, there will be no resolution to the Syrian Civil War and the Iraqi conflict.