Guest editorial: Over our heads in Syria?
Before we adopt a new Syria policy, a quick review might be helpful in better understanding the endless confusion that rules over the situation in that region today.
Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turks make up about 72 percent of the Syrian population; Shia, 13 percent; and Christians about 10 percent. The Syrian government, its military and economy under Bashar Al Assad are dominated by the Alawites (Shia). Minority Alawites and their allies run everything important in Syria.
The current civil war in Syria began in the spring of 2011 with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors who are roughly 90 percent Sunni.
This struggle has been something of a proxy war with Iran (Shia) and Yemen (Shia) the main supporters of the Assad (Shia) regime with outside help from Russia. Arrayed against them in support of the rebels are Jordan, Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Sunni fundamentalism), Turkey and Qatar (both Sunni) along with France, Britain and the U.S. The sectarian violence has spread to Lebanon where Hezbollah (Shia) has allied itself with the Assad regime and, additionally, fought with Lebanese Sunni groups.
ISIS began life as a fundamentalist Sunni organization. In effect, ISIS is a criminal organization populated by thugs for whom there are no rules of decency. Given sufficient exposure, it is highly likely that ISIS will completely alienate the Sunnis in northern Syria and western Iraq, as there is nothing in the Koran (as it is seen by the vast majority of its adherents) that justifies the murderous activities in which they have continuously been involved. Shia Iran is ISIS’ foremost committed enemy. Whose side are we on?
In addition, we have the new Iraqi army which is now being trained by the United States, but which has been referred to as “not so much an army as a vast system of patronage.” The Army, beholden as it is to the Shia government of Iraq, excludes from its ranks any Iraqi who might be opposed to that government. The army is widely said to have been infiltrated by local militias and foreign insurgents, resulting in secular killings and operational failures. It is, to all intents and purposes an inefficient, albeit Shia, operation. Further, current reporting indicates that much of the anti-ISIS opposition comes from Shia militia from Iraq. Do we want our boots on the ground with them?
Then we have the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group (28,000,000) in the world without a country and whose people are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are estimated to represent 15-25 percent of the total population of Turkey. Even though they are Sunnis, like the Turks on whose land so many Kurds live, they are viewed with grave suspicion by the Turks as ongoing threats to the sovereignty of eastern Turkey. In fact, they do find time to kill one another on a fairly regular basis. Whom do we support?
So we have this incredible mélange of ethnic and sectarian Middle Easterners involved either directly or indirectly in the Syrian insurgency. It is impossible at any given time, to predict just how they will react to the wide variety of scenarios that exist for the future. They are hardly the sort of allies that the U.S. is used to and from whom we could possibly profit. Who are our friends? Our enemies?
Counterterrorism doctrine promotes police work, intelligence collection and Special Forces operations, never military. No matter what the administration says, Syria is not a counterterrorism problem. It is a counterinsurgency problem. Some Americans openly promote American troops on the ground in Syria. U.S. military doctrine dictates that in fighting an insurgency the occupying force must have one combatant on the ground for every 20-25 residents of the country involved. Even with all the Syrians who have left their country, there are probably around 22 million left. That would mean a force of 440,000-550,000 troops. Are we up to that? Who will pay for it?
And then there is the other reality. We have learned from our invasion of Afghanistan that if you overlook the rules and put American troops on the ground fighting against an organization that even the local residents hate, you present those residents with a dilemma. Do they support the invading Americans or do they support an indigenous group that they otherwise would hate? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq give us a pretty clear answer to that question.
These realities will not change simply because our policy makers want them to. And then, what is our goal? Even if we are successful in bringing down ISIS, what then?
We are so over our heads here!
— Haviland Smith
Editor’s note: Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in east and west Europe and the Middle East, as executive assistant in the director’s office and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.
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