Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson famously blanked at the mention of Aleppo. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tried to shame President Obama for his failure to stop the vicious fighting in Syria’s largest city. Not knowing the name of the major city in an important world conflict is an embarrassing lapse for a potential president (to the degree that a Libertarian nominee can be called a potential president). But Cohen’s column is the more worrying. It is an instance of elite opinion calling on the United States to act in Syria, without discussing what we would need to do to create and keep peace there.
Cohen discusses the now-famous photograph of Omar Daqneesh—a heartbreaking image of a boy covered in rubble, victim of a bombing raid by (presumably) the Assad regime. Cohen declares, “No outcome in Syria could be worse than the current one.” He seems to have a high degree of confidence that if the United States had bombed the Assad regime, it would have produced a more peaceful Syria. Maybe it would have. Or maybe bombing—or perhaps better to say, merely bombing—the Assad forces would have produced only a different kind of hell.
After all, the American bombing of ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq has not led to the destruction of ISIS, and the Russian bombing of the Assad regime’s internal enemies has not led to Assad’s taking over Aleppo, never mind the whole country.
There is also the question of what to do next. If the United States is to stop what happened to Omar from happening to other Syrian children, it will need to create and enforce peace in the multi-sided Syrian civil war.
By 2006, Iraq had descended into a civil war that was only getting worse. President George W. Bush settled on his “Surge” strategy, which added over 20,000 American troops to the more than 100,000 already in that country. The Surge strategy focused on protecting the population as a step toward political reconciliation. In 2007, over nine hundred American troops were killed in Iraq, but violence plummeted, and al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) was marginalized.
Even to a layman like this author, the notion of replicating this strategy in Syria starts with some obvious problems. Even if the American public could be made to understand the players in Syria’s civil war, the scale of the conflict is bigger. Syria is a smaller country than Iraq, but the Surge focused largely (though not exclusively) on Iraq’s Sunni areas—and Sunnis only make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Syria is much more populous than Iraq’s Sunni areas. One of Syria’s main factions (the Assad regime) is partnered with the Russian military. And in a final, terrible irony, the Syrian civil war has bled into Iraq—with swaths of Iraq now, once again, occupied by the successors of al-Qaeda-in-Iraq. Pacifying Syria (and Sunni Iraq) looks to be a much bigger and riskier job than the 2007 Surge.
And there is no public support. American military operations can succeed despite public indifference or incomprehension—provided the wars are relatively quick and/or painless. Most Americans had never heard of Grenada when President Reagan ordered an invasion of that country, but that conflict ended quickly and successfully, so there was no political problem. The public did not support President Bill Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, but American casualties were few, the war ended in victory, and the conflict did Clinton no harm.
President Obama seems to be following this template in attacking ISIS. There are reports of thousands of American troops on the ground supporting the American bombing campaign against ISIS. But since those troops are not dying in large numbers, the Obama administration pretends that they are not ground troops, and the public pretends to believe him. The Obama administration’s anti-ISIS efforts seem to be either floundering or succeeding on a geologic timetable, depending on how you look at it.
The 2007 Surge was both unpopular and costly, but President Bush kept it going by force of will and the powers of the presidency (and a Republican congressional minority, which prevented defunding of the war). But without public support (and with a financial crisis), Bush’s party was ejected from the White House, and the Obama administration abandoned Bush’s counterinsurgency strategy—along with the hard-won gains of 2007.
From the perspective of a layman, it seems important that whoever wins Syria’s civil war, ISIS must lose. ISIS seems too dangerous as a source of training for jihadis, and as an inspiration for nuts everywhere. Any humanitarian would want to see an end to Syria’s civil war even if the conflict were not spreading violence throughout (and beyond) the Middle East. Maybe the goal of defeating ISIS can be accomplished without pacifying Syria. Maybe not.
But before the United States mobilizes to accomplish any of that, we need to hear a realistic plan and a frank assessment of costs and risks. That only seems like common sense. But then again, I don’t know any more about Aleppo than Gary Johnson does.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.