The American public tends to see military action as binary: all in or not in at all. Mostly we’re not in — as befits a country that is not aggressive or acquisitive. But if we’re in it, win it. In this age of transnational enemies and vacuums of governance, however, the Obama administration has created a series of half-in, half-out military and political situations that have brought chaos to the Middle East, confusing our friends and comforting our adversaries. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Somalia, fear of a Vietnam-like quagmire still drives American leadership.
Afghanistan was called “Russia’s Vietnam” for a reason, but Vladimir Putin appears to have learned a different lesson about quagmires. Setting achievable aims — both military and political — and stopping when they have been met as much as practical, is key to being able to leave third countries while maintaining influence.
The apparent beginning of a Russian pullout of some forces from Syria should not be mistaken for the end of the Syrian civil war — or for a moral foreign policy. What it suggests, rather, is that Russia has achieved its military goals there and is now content to let both the political and military processes proceed with less direct Russian intervention.
Russia’s primary goals in Syria were:
- To secure its hold on the bases at Latakia and Tartus, which requires a friendly government in Damascus, and
- To damage Sunni jihadist rebels, whether ISIS, al Qaeda, or simply anti-Assad.
A secondary goal was to allow the Russians to test and show off new generation military equipment and tactics, includingsustained bombing and the MiG-31M aircraft. Another was to provide diplomatic achievements including opening conversations — and discussing arms sales — with American allies/clients Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, and deepening the information exchange with Israel.
Russia provided the airpower that allowed Syrian troops to retake territory essential to security in the northwestern part of the country, and bombed Sunni areas regardless of rebel or jihadist allegiance. There is no longer an existential threat to a pro-Russian regime in Damascus.
Having succeeded, they’re leaving. True, Russian air defense systems and advisors will remain to ensure the security of Russian-supported assets and goals, but the main military mission appears to be over and Putin is content to be a player at the multi-player “peace talks.”
In Ukraine, Russia stoked the war and fought the war, and the wreckage of war for Ukrainians continues to this day. But it means little to Putin since the goal of annexing Crimea without European pushback was accomplished. Goals were set, strategy formulated, military action undertaken, and military action succeeded. The same will be true for Syrians — the grinding of the civil war is not Russia’s concern.What will happen at the international conference? It hardly matters. Does Assad stay or go? As long as the government in Damascus maintains its ties to Moscow, it hardly matters. Does Damascus control all the territory that used to be Syria? As long as it controls the northwest region that abuts the Russian bases, it hardly matters. Does Iran stay in Syria? It hardly matters to Russia, but it should be noted that Iran has also been withdrawing its fighting forces. Will the “peace process” end the war? Likely not, although again from the Russian point of view, it hardly matters.
Compare and contrast to the United States.
President Obama came to office with no articulated goal in Iraq or Afghanistan except to leave. “I was elected to end wars not to start them.” In his 2009 West Point address he explained, “I want the Afghan people to understand — America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country. We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence… and we will seek a partnership with Afghanistan grounded in mutual respect — to isolate those who destroy; to strengthen those who build; to hasten the day when our troops will leave.”
He did note, “Our overarching goal remains… to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” We heard those words later with regard to ISIS — “disrupt, dismantle, defeat.”
The theme continued through his presidency. “Make no mistake, ending the wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) responsibly makes us safer and our military even stronger.” (2012) In Syria, “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” They were but we didn’t in part because the administration thought it would end up fighting the civil war. (2013) “The choice we face [on the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran] is ultimately between diplomacy and some form of war.” (2015) Even Libya, which appeared for a while actually to have been a short-term intervention, is now dragging us back inas ISIS used the vacuum of power on the ground to take over the city of Sirte. (2016)
For the president, war is no longer binary. We’re back in Iraq, sort of, and across the border in Syria. We’re still in Afghanistan, and the former U.S. commander there is calling for intensified military engagement. U.S. Special Forces operations and drone strikes are occurring in Libya, and American bombs have hit Somalia. Bombings and deployments of American forces around the world with no militarily achievable goal in sight may eliminate known players in the ranks of ISIS and al Qaeda without slowing the spread of terror and Islamic ideology.
In the meantime, the Russians have taken their prizes and gone home.