Are we really interested in Syria?

The DoD recently announced the names of those who died in the suicide attack in Syria. Among them was CTIC Shannon Kent. The two questions I now get are one, Did you know her, and two, Why is the Navy over in Syria? Given her duty stations and our Navy being small, I’m surprised I haven’t run into Chief Kent, but unfortunately I never had a chance to meet her.

The second question is harder to answer. We have American servicemembers all over the world. Ever since 9-11, we’ve ramped up our Special Operations personnel in order to stop terrorism around the world. The entire Department of Defense seemed to retool and reorganize to focus on fighting this problem. We invested heavily in training small cadres of people, specialized targeting processes and drones that could carry weapons remotely into hard to reach areas.

Our track record for blowing up terrorists is pretty good, so from that perspective, the investment was sound. The problem with that effectiveness is that we now feel we can insert ourselves into any conflict, with minimal risk. Syria is the latest, and we’ve been playing a dangerous game, because we haven’t defined what our interest is there.

Some people tell me we have an interest in overthrowing Assad. Assad is a pretty terrible person, and he runs a pretty ruthless regime. However, Russia is completely opposed to this, so we must ask ourselves if we are willing to push back on Russia over this issue. If so, it will require a full government effort to do, and we should ask for a declaration of war from Congress. Russia is “all in” on defending Assad’s regime. A token response from us will not cause regime change.

Some people tell me we have an interest in defending the Kurds and fighting for their own country. First, if the Kurds have a bad deal, people should blame the United Kingdom and France, which screwed them out of a country. We aren’t signed onto any treaty with the Kurds. While many in America want the Kurds to have their own country, that runs counter to the interests of an actual treaty ally, Turkey.

We can say Turkey is crazy and not our friend, but over what? They didn’t permit use of air bases for the Iraq War, purchased weapons from Russia, and have a President that we don’t exactly like. However, plenty of NATO allies have purchased (and continue to operate) Russian weapon systems. How much they like America, and their form of government, shifts from year to year, just like our opinions of them. The Turkish Armed forces is one of the larger forces, and more capable, in NATO.

If we’re going to throw out relations with a capable treaty ally, then we should do it over good reasons and have that national debate. Right now many people want to throw them out in favor of a group of people they barely know, that isn’t signed on to any sort of treaty with us, and has large elements that we classify as a terrorist organization.

I’m not sure what our interests are in Syria. When Syria used chemical weapons, I saw the need to punish that in order to enforce international norms of behavior and discourage future chemical weapon usage. After that though? Do we want to tangle with Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, on their own turf? Are we willing to put a whole of government approach behind that in order to win? I argue that answer is currently no, because we seem content to throw a few thousand people at the issue, without a declaration of war or a defined end state.

We have been lazy as a people when we think about American interests abroad. We have the most capable military in the world, and we waste it by sending them to random corners of the world, without a care to how much it cost us or what our goals are. We are content to play a whack-a-mole targeting game, where we find bad guys we don’t like and blow them up, with little regard given to what is left behind. We’re really good at it, which gives us the illusion that we should continue to exercise that power.

We consistently fail to ask what a future Syria, future Iraq, future “insert country here” looks like after we finish. We pretend that somehow all we have to do is blow up enough bad guys and magically things get better. Ironically, many of the same people that argue for continued Syria deployments are angry at the progress made with North Korea. President Trump defined the end-state for North Korea with a video of people enjoying economic prosperity, and is working (however slowly) towards that end. I see no such end state for Syria, and I’m guessing he didn’t either, hence the pull out.

Our laziness in thinking cost lives, both now and potentially in a future conflict. Hopefully Chief Kent’s sacrifice can wake us up and get us to think differently about where our true interests are and where we are willing to sacrifice our national blood and treasure to achieve those in the future.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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