The Islamic Caliphate announced in 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, is approaching the end of its short and terrible life. Iraqi forces, supported by Americans, have reclaimed the eastern half of Mosul and are retaking the western one. Kurdish militias in Syria, also backed by the United States, are homing in on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Word came this week that a contingent of Marines has been deployed in Syria to position heavy artillery for the fight ahead. “We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city,” a militia spokesman tells Reuters.
ISIS doesn’t have a chance. American air and ground forces, working with local proxies, are about to terminate its existence as a state. “Crushed,” to paraphrase President Trump. A just—and popular—cause.
But that won’t be the end. Recent events suggest that the military defeat of ISIS is just the beginning of a renewed American involvement in Iraq and Syria. And whether the American public and president are prepared for or willing to accept the probable costs of such involvement is unknown. That is reason for concern.
To glimpse the future, look at the city of Manbij in northeast Syria. Humvees and Strykers flying the American flag have appeared there in recent days. The mission? Not to defeat ISIS. Our proxies kicked them out last year. What we are doing in Manbij is something altogether different from a military assault: a “deterrence and reassurance” operation meant to dissuade rival factions from massacring one another. If you can’t remember when President Obama or President Trump called for such an operation, that’s because they never did.
And there’s a twist. One of the factions we are trying to intimidate is none other than the army of Turkey, a NATO member and purported ally. Turkey moved in on Manbij not because of ISIS but because of the Kurds. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish autocrat, opposes one of our Kurdish proxies. He says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has conducted an insurgency against his government for decades. Yet the YPG is also the most effective indigenous anti-ISIS force on the ground. We need it to take Raqqa.
Things get even more complicated. Also in Manbij are the Russians, who are helping units of the Syrian army police a group of villages. The Kurds invited them, too, presumably as a separate hedge against Turkey. To keep score: The Americans, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Syrians are all converging on an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States.
One needn’t have read The Guns of August to fret about the risks of miscalculation and misinterpretation. Which is why, on Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, met with his Russian and Turkish counterparts. “One American official described the situation around Manbij as a potential tinderbox,” reports the New York Times. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about.
U.S. intervention in Syria is following a pattern that has ended in regret. Having entered the conflict to pursue the narrow aim of destroying ISIS, we are likely to assume much more abstract and open-ended responsibilities once our immediate goal has been achieved. Similar vague and unspecific policies led to Americans being killed in Lebanon in 1983 and in Somalia a decade later. Where peacekeeping has been successful, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the mission was clear from the beginning, authorized by all parties by treaty, and adequately resourced—tens of thousands of troops, most of them American. None of these conditions apply today.
It is one thing to maintain a presence in Iraq, a country whose fate seems to be entangled with our own. It is another to expand our involvement in Syria with little public rationale or debate. At the very least Congress deserves an opportunity to take up the issue. But don’t get your hopes up. The GOP Congress resisted taking ownership of the war in Syria when the president was a Democrat. There is little reason to think it will do so now when the president is a Republican.
What happens the day after Raqqa falls? Should American troops remain in Syria once ISIS has been defeated, and if so for what purpose? Will there be clear lines of authority between CENTCOM and SOCOM? Just what is America’s position on the Kurds—are we for an independent Kurdistan, and if so are we prepared to resist Turkish and Iraqi attempts to quash it? Who is making key military and diplomatic decisions: the president, the secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or the combatant commanders?
The president is charged with answering such questions. And he must be ready to defend his answers. To do otherwise risks complacency and drift. This is an unstable and murky situation. And it could end, as so often happens, in lost lives, reduced credibility, and an even wider conflict.
A contributor to The Weekly Standard likes to tell the following story: Covering the Lebanese civil war in 1983, he visited an outpost of U.S. Marines. They came under sniper fire from one militia. Then another militia started shooting. Then the Syrians joined in. At which point a lance corporal turned to him and said, “Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument.”