Eyeless in Syria

November 5, 2015–Walter Pincus is a senior reporter for the Washington Post. He focuses on defense and intelligence matters. I met him one time, when we both shared a podium at the International Spy Museum. In small talk Mr. Pincus marveled at the ability of authors to wait months and years for their works to arrive in print. Pincus averred that he feels bereft if the paper appears without something from him in it.

The other side of that coin, though, is that when you publish something every day you end up stretching the material, and your ideas, and at some point you go beyond the pale. In the Post on November 3 there is an example. Pincus has an article which earnestly assures the reader that President Obama does have a strategy in Syria, and that there has always been such a strategy. Since 2011, Pincus declares, the strategy has been to end the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and in 2012 Mr. Obama added the use of force to degrade and defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). The Pincus doth protest too much.

These pious words obscure the incoherence of United States strategy in Syria. In the first place Pincus confuses goals with strategy. Both things that he names are aims of policy. Strategy is a means to achieve those aims. Since learning a few days ago that the U.S. will send some Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Syria I’ve been meaning to write something on this, and the Pincus story offers a good opportunity.

Mr. Pincus quotes a statement released from talks last week in Vienna among the warring Syrian factions (minus ISIS) which declares that the Syrian people will decide the future of their country. That indeed has been Obama’s stance, and it stands unchanged since the time of the Arab Spring. The problem has been that the Syrians proved unable to settle their future, deadlocked for long enough that outside forces like ISIS could create a foothold and then move to control Syria themselves.

President Obama’s response at every stage of the Syrian developments has been to increase the U.S. profile in hopes of empowering favored Syrian factions. First the encouragement of local allies. Then a CIA covert operation, then a Pentagon one, then the return of U.S. troops to Iraq, after that U.S. bombing, then the creation of a coalition to widen the action envelope, now the introduction of SOF into the area.

This ceased being all-Syrian action a long time ago. And actually this moment–even its Special Forces component–has the feel of Vietnam just before the Gulf of Tonkin. Then, in 1963-1964, you had the same phenomenon of an intractable situation, with U.S. officials and military people arguing that the more the United States could control actions the nearer we would get to our goals. This unilateral action strategy led to the infamous OPLAN 34-A, specifically designed to use SOF to disrupt the North Vietnamese adversary.

The problem in Vietnam, just as in Syria today, is that there is no charted avenue for U.S. actions to lead to Washington’s goals–hence the incoherence of strategy. In both cases, Washington’s response has been to escalate in hopes of success at a higher level of violence. The Syria imbroglio has led to widespread destruction and a wave of refugees fleeing the country. Let us hope that that tragedy leads to some deeper thinking in Western capitals, because so far this incoherent strategy has only brought a mess.

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