By Joe Ragonese
The prospect of fighting all our enemies at one time, in the same place, is not the stuff of fiction, it is lining up before our very eyes. China, Russia, Iran, and Syria all have military forces on the very same battlefield that America and some of our NATO partners are engaged in combat. It is in Syria, that China, Russia and Iran all want a shot at taking on America, for various reasons. Any circumstance could be the trigger that sets off a much larger war.
The chances of making an error that leads to that mini-world war can be anything from one NATO fighter being downed by a Chinese made anti-aircraft missile, fired from an Iranian air defense launcher, to a Russian fighter shot down by a U.S. supplied stinger missile fired by a Kurdish fighter. Whatever the reason, we are in a very perilous position on that front; made all the worse because there is no strategic plan in place by our government determining our actions there.
America does not want to widen the conflict, but our enemies may very well wish to do just that. The thought of a nuclear war is too horrific to contemplate, because the consequences of one would be unthinkable. It is for that reason that nations who have designs on gaining territory they have no right to must devise different strategies when contemplating aggression. A wider war, with America, in Syria, could be a viable strategy.
Russia is already in combat in the region, thanks to Obama’s lack of leadership. They want to prop up Bashar al-Assad, their old partner in the Middle East. Russia gains a warm water port, while at the same time world prestige if they can keep al-Assad in power. Iran is also partnered with al-Assad and Russia in the plot to keep the dictator in charge. Iran and Syria have a long history of exporting terrorism through their clients in Hezbollah and Hamas.
Recently, China’s armed forces have shown up in the area, allied with Iran. Twice this year they have conducted joint naval and air operations in the Straights of Hormuz. China is becoming more involved with Iran, and wants a piece of the Middle East pie. Of course, America and some of our NATO partners are also there, trying to defeat ISIS. All the world powers on one battlefield at the same time. Nothing can go wrong there, Right!
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said there is real danger to the U.S. as tensions flare in Syria. He was remarking after an American Navy F/A-18 fighter shot down a Syrian Su-22 attack bomber that had just targeted anti-ISIS forces, aligned with America. These American backed forces are not likely to allow al-Assad to remain in power after ISIS is removed, and Russia and Syria are in the process of eliminating the opposition.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture all Syrian territory lost during the nation’s civil war, Ford noted in an email. “There is, therefore, a real risk of escalation, especially if, unlike in western Syria, the Americans insist on backing up their Syrian allies on the ground and there is no deal with Assad,” he said.
America has no interest in allowing al-Assad to remain in power. U.S. policy under Obama was to remove al-Assad from power, and that goal has not changed with the Trump administration. America’s partners in removing him include Kurdish troops, who wish to form their own state in ISIS controlled Syria after they defeat them. That is problematic because an American NATO ally, Turkey, is opposed to that occurring, and may side with Russia to prevent such from happening. Turkey has already attacked American allied Kurdish positions in an attempt to stop that from happening.
The situation with the Kurds is complicated as there are two separate Kurdish forces in the area. The YPG are the Popular Protection Units of the Kurds, who are not only allied with the United States, they are the most effective forces fighting ISIS. The other group of Kurds are the Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, and they are a communist rebel group fighting for autonomy, since the 1980s, against Turkey.
They were, at one time, sponsored by the old Soviet Union. Both the U.S. and Turkey consider them a terrorist organization, but Turkey also considers the YPG as being an equal threat to their sovereignty. So, Turkey, attacks both equally. Remember, the YPG is allied with us, and we shot down a Syrian Su-22 to protect them.
Recently, American forces have targeted pro-al-Assad forces whenever they attack our partners. The U.S. has fired on Syrian forces centered on Al Tanf, where the U.S. military is training its partnered local forces. On May 18, the United States conducted airstrikes on an Iranian-backed pro-government militia that it said came within the established deconfliction zone around the training base.
That was followed on June 6 by another strike against an Iranian-backed militia when it came into the deconfliction zone with a tank, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, armed technical vehicles and more than 600 soldiers. Two days later, the United States shot down an armed drone after it fired a dud munition at U.S.-led forces. U.S. officials have not said who was operating the drone but have said it was made by Iran.
After each incident, the U.S. military has insisted it only took action in self-defense and that it has no intention of getting further embroiled in the Syrian civil war. Intentions; however, do not always work the way one would want. A look at the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 would remind us that there are unintended consequences when one goes to war.
The Sunday, June 18, US shoot down of the Syrian Su-22 fighter/bomber, further entangled us in the war. “The coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the military reiterated in its statement after the jet’s downing. “The coalition does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat.” No mention of Iran, but they have been attacked three times in the past few weeks.
That, of course, is a prescription to dig us deeper into the Middle East turmoil. Every President since Jimmy Carter has learned, the hard way, that there is no extrication from the entanglements of the factions opposing each other in that region, once entered. Candidate Trump promised us that there would be no un-winnable wars fought to build nations. His actions in Syria, so far, do not live up to those promises.
Each act of self-defense for our side gets retaliation down the line. That is how the Middle East works. Feuds last for centuries there; that is why Islamic terrorist in Europe and America keep calling us Crusaders. They never forget a slight against their honor. And each time we target one of their airplanes that is attacking our side, it is a slight against their honor.
Add in Russia and China, who really want to defeat America on a battlefield to gain advantage in other parts of the world, and an unintended war between peer nations may be looming just over the horizon. The consequences of such a war cannot be predicted. On paper, neither Russia nor China is in a position to defeat us; however, there are no sure bets when going to war.
Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, said the U.S. military’s decision to shoot down a Syrian jet was a “welcome development,” noting that Russia did nothing in retaliation against Turkey after they shot down one of their jets.
There was a good reason for Russia not to have retaliated against Turkey; it was because they see a chance to break up NATO using them. Turkey is now more closely aligned with Russia than NATO. If Russia, Iran, Syria, and China were to go to war with NATO, there is a very good chance that Turkey would side with them. That action alone could break up NATO.
If Putin were able to convince China to join them in confronting America in Syria, that might be a strategy for both to gain their desired territories, without risking a nuclear war. Wars are always about risks versus rewards. Syria, Iran, Turkey, Russia and China against NATO, the risk may be high, but the risk of a nuclear war is almost zero. With that in mind, the risk of two near-peer combatants, in combination with The Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, and Turkey facing off against NATO, which is in disarray presently, is low risk for high reward.
They do not even have to defeat us on the battlefield to win the overall strategic advantage. NATO could be destroyed by simply breaking it apart as a result of the war. Germany comes to mind, as a nation that does not wish to aid America in war, and might find this entanglement just the right time to break its NATO agreement. If a war in Syria ends in a stalemate, but NATO disbanded because of it, the benefits to both Russia and China would be huge. They don’t have to win, just keep the fight going.
The plusses on their side are just the opposite of those in America. The American people do not want any more wars; especially in the Middle East. We don’t need them. We can become oil independent within five years, so our strategic interest in the area is little to none. So why are we there?
The only lesson of the Cold War’s hot spots, like Korea and Vietnam, is that we can never again commit troops to an un-winnable war. The first question in drawing up a strategy in the Middle East must be is what constitutes victory in Syria if we commit more troops to war? The next is, is that definition of victory obtainable? The third must be why? Defeating ISIS is a slippery slope to go down.
Presently we lack a cohesive strategy for the area, and there is little reason to risk escalation until one is devised. Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, has advocated for more U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, but she expressed alarm at the United States shooting down the Syrian jet and attacking militias at Al Tanf without a larger strategy.
“My biggest concern is not escalation, although I agree that there’s a real risk,” Pletka said, “escalation toward a particular end is a good thing. Escalation for no reason, with no particular goal, is not.” She is exactly right, and both China and Russia know it.
Defeating ISIS is not a strategy. It was a cool thing to say while on the campaign trail, but now President Trump needs to codify how that is to be accomplished, without escalating the fight. With two near-peer combatant nations, who know exactly what they want, already involved with our fight against ISIS, often with opposite goals, keeping us out of a mini-world war should be the most important American objective.
Are we headed for a mini-world war in Syria? Yes, if we do not determine a cohesive plan of action and a way to accomplish it very soon.
It is time for President Trump to tell the American people what his goals in the Middle East are. We will go along with most reasoning, but we must know why we are bleeding, both blood and treasure, on the parched sands of that far-away land.