NEW CASTLE, Penn., Jan. 25, 2016 — During a Saturday meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vice President Joe Biden said “[we] have a military solution to this operation in taking out Daesh,” should peace talks fail.
This immediately raised concerns that Biden had just revealed plans to escalate America’s intervention in Syria.
Whether or not his words were poorly chosen, it is important to reiterate what role the U.S. should have in the Syrian civil war and the war against the Islamic State.
First and foremost, the Obama administration cannot allow the United States to be pulled into another unwinnable war.
American war hawks have long advocated for intervention on the ground in Syria and renewed commitment to the Iraq War, but the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have made such a level of engagement unrealistic.
Thanks to Russian intervention in Syria, which has undermined Western-backed factions, there is increased pressure on the Obama administration to counter Russian influence.
Countering Russian influence is the worst possible reason to escalate U.S. intervention in Syria and Iraq. Because measures being taken to discourage Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea could spark a global conflict between major world powers, bogging down U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq is short-sighted and dangerous.
If Russia and Iran manage to avoid alienating major groups within Syria and Iraq any more than they already have, they may end up enjoying increased influence. The U.S. has, however, learned from costly experience that influence easily evaporates in a world where countries are free to form multilateral relations with rivals of their closest allies.
Unless Russia attacks U.S. allies, undermines U.S. interests or kills civilians, the U.S. government has no reason to react when the Russian government sacrifices its own troops, misallocates its own money and undermines its own national security by overcommitting to military intervention in Syria.
Global economic instability, including the economic woes of the EU, Russia, China, Brazil and the U.S., means that the international community must assist the unstable Middle East without overcommitting limited resources, while avoiding entanglement in traditional rivalries.
The reason the Islamic State emerged as the predominant threat in the region and has thrived is that every country in the region keeps trying to “balance” the influence of its rivals by engaging in mutually destructive policies.
Middle East security hinges on the ability of regional powers to overcome traditional and cultural conflicts in order to focus on common threats to the national security of all Middle Eastern nations.
This means that traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran must learn to solve conflicts through diplomatic channels. In addressing dissent and civil unrest, governments must learn to rely on political engagement as an alternative to violent crackdowns. If they do not, they will continue to inspire violence.
The growing hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not bode well.
Middle Eastern powers would probably prefer that the U.S., its Western allies and Russia launch massive military campaigns to eliminate the Islamic State for them. Over-subsidizing the regional security by defeating the common enemy of all Middle Eastern nations and peoples for them is, however, counterproductive in the long term.
Relying on the West to defeat the Islamic State leaves regional powers room to continue their traditional rivalries and their destabilizing support of militant groups. It also allows Middle Eastern governments to avoid civil engagement in favor of crackdowns against civil discontent under the guise of anti-terrorism initiatives.
Furthermore, ground forces are the backbone of any anti-insurgent campaign, which is why Middle Eastern powers need to be committed to their own regional security.
Until native security forces are committed to defending their own homeland against threats, and unless governments are committed to resolving conflicts with their neighbors and address the grievances of their own discontented people, no counter-insurgency campaign can be successful.
Failure to meet these conditions means foreign intervention will simply perpetuate the status quo at the cost of U.S. tax dollars, national security and the lives of American troops.
That said, air support can give ground forces the edge they need to defeat insurgents. Strategic missions to free hostages, gather intelligence and eliminate hostile leadership can reduce the effectiveness of terrorist groups. Providing nonlethal aid and carefully supplying well-controlled arms are ways of ensuring that solid anti-insurgent campaigns have what they need to be successful.
These moves, however, are components of a support role.
As shown by the inability of Iraq’s army to function without the guidance and support of the U.S. military in post-war Iraq, over-reliance on foreign assistance may lead to disaster when the long, drawn-out commitment of foreign blood and treasure is exhausted.
The Islamic State is a far more pressing concern for those in Middle East and Africa, as well as Europe and Asia. The United States does have interests in Iraq and Syria, aside from ensuring that the Islamic State does not become a far more serious threat. America’s role in the war against the Islamic State should remain a support role.