September 5, 2015–As noted here the other day (“When is a War ‘Winnable,'” September 1) the operational method of remote/proxy war, as applied to Syria, is not likely to succeed. This is for a host of reasons. The ISIL adversary’s system is simply too distributed to be seriously impacted by isolated air strikes or drone attacks that hit at one or a few control nodes. The remote campaign lacks the weight required to inflict serious losses by itself on ISIL ground strength. The air campaign does not directly impact ISIL relations with the populations it controls, except to the degree that collateral damage drives Syrian citizens into the arms of the enemy.
More damage has been done to ISIL by the worldwide drop in oil prices than by the United States air campaign.
As for the ground effort, covertly arming anti-ISIL Syrians to fight the new enemy, President Barack Obama walked into that with his eyes open. He asked for–and the CIA produced–a study of past covert paramilitary operations. The secret study reportedly shows that the overwhelming majority of these projects fail, while those that succeed do so in unanticipated ways. These are not striking conclusions. I could have written them myself. In fact, I did. Twice. In the books Safe for Democracy a decade ago, and Presidents’ Secret Wars, reissued a decade before that, those were leading conclusions in both cases. No one should have needed spooks with crystal balls to have appreciated the obstacles to success.
Still, despite the cautions in the open literature and whatever wisdom his secret soothsayers imparted, President Obama went ahead with his campaign. On the ground he started up a paramilitary training activity, and had the CIA arm what we considered reliable Syrian resistance groups. This led to immediate difficulties. In Syria the Nusra Front, among the most successful of the partisans, is affiliated with Al Qaeda, America’s sworn enemy. To have any chance a Syrian resistance group must have some relationship with Nusra. There is also the issue of what weapons to give “our” partisans, starving as they are for food, medicine, and everything it takes to wage war. Some of our weapons will end up on the black market. Too potent and they will hand our own enemies a stinger. Too feeble and our partisans get nowhere. Which is, in fact, where they are. So Obama pulled in the Pentagon and had them fire up a parallel resistance training and arming activity. It has had equally poor results.
The most recent signs are of escalation. They involve the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This past spring an Army Delta Force band (for more on Special Forces see my recent book on this subject) inserted into Syria for a raid against a purported senior ISIL commander. He escaped, but his wife was apparently captured, along with computers and other records. The records and interrogations led to other attacks, and in recent weeks several top ISIL commanders have been blasted in drone strikes. This week, as I traveled to Chicago to give a talk, it emerged that JSOC has now been melded with the CIA–the agency’s Counter Terrorism Center is now supplying intelligence Targeting for JSOC drones. The administration describes this as an integration of the expertise of both services.
However successful, the drone attacks represent but a tiny fraction of the campaign. In Iraq there have been more than 4,000 air strikes in the year since this operation began. Cost is said to be $9.9 million a day, which would make it $3.6 billion so far. There have been 2,450 air strikes in Syria. Even at that cost, and counting all strikes in both countries, that amounts to an average of 17 aircraft flights per day, hardly enough to cover the territory much less exert significant weight of force. Increasing efficiency by employing JSOC and the CIA is working at the margins. The Pentagon and CIA covert ops are said to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a fraction of the air campaign.
Mr. Obama cannot much increase the intensity of operations without engaging the war powers issue. Plus, we infer, the president is aware that as a covert operation the Syrian venture has little chance of success. So what’s up here?
Analysts of geopolitics used to talk about different approaches to power. One was “hegemonic,” a quest for total power or control–“winnability” or victory. Another was “balance of power,” the employment of quantities of force sufficient to prevent any of the warring factions from winning, in hopes the fighters will simply exhaust themselves. Mr. Obama may be engaged in precisely this sort of balancing act.
But balancing has consequences of its own. In the Syrian case, the conflict is rapidly turning into a humanitarian disaster, with cities destroyed, services wrecked, and populations fleeing. Citizens are becoming refugees at an exponential rate. The current European quandary in the face of a refugee tsunami is a direct consequence of the fighting in Syria. A balance of power strategy, deliberately extending the war, directly contributes to the refugee problem. Obama’s policy in the Syrian war, to be complete, therefore requires a United States that helps to cope with the Syrian citizens fleeing their war torn land. Think of that over this Labor Day weekend.