5 questions we should be asking about this Syria operation

A formation of US Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq on Sept. 23.
Shawn Nickel/US Air Force/Handout

It’s been quite a week.

Just to recap: On Monday night the United States, in consort with five Sunni Arab countries, began bombing Syria, targeting the Islamic State (IS) and a new group called Khorasan. For the past seven weeks or so, US planes have been trying to push IS back in Iraq, with mixed results. Syria is a new objective.

The US insists that getting rid of IS is its main priority, but this is a swamp filled with monsters. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been in US crosshairs for months, but the new round of military action inside Syria actually benefits Assad, who’s battling the extremists, too.

As the machinery of war grinds inexorably on, many Americans are wondering just how bad things can get. If the past 13 years have taught us anything, it’s that the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but it is signposted with unintended consequences.

Before we plunge wholeheartedly into a new round of conflict, there are a few things we have to get straight. These five questions should do, for starters.

1. Do we know what we’re doing?

The short answer: not so much.

For a nation that’s been waging war in the Middle East for more than a decade, the United States is still uncomfortably vague when it comes to sorting friend from foe, or even identifying the main issues.

US leaders normally try to portray the fight as a struggle between good and evil. President Barack Obama’s United Nations speech was liberally sprinkled with “heart of darkness” and “network of death” rhetoric.

But the lines between seeming absolutes gets a bit blurry when reality sets in.

Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former special assistant to the US president for the Middle East and South Asia, has cast the present confrontation as a divide between Islamists and non-Islamists, trumping other differences of geography, politics or sectarianism.

Exploiting that fault line, he argues, means a new alignment with America’s “natural partners”:

“The non-Islamists include the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared,” Ross wrote in The New York Times.

Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a political science professor at George Washington University, finds this argument “naive,” and warns that self-serving and opportunistic definitions will not help the US:

“The US habit of defining as ‘moderate’ any individual or political force who seems to have positions consistent with US foreign policy priorities of the moment … provides a particularly poor key to understanding the region,” he wrote in The Washington Post.

The lack of nuance in the government’s understanding of the issues can lead to downright silliness, he argues.

The administration’s call for prominent Muslim clerics to appeal to the Islamic State on religious grounds would have as much chance of success as sending “the archbishop of Canterbury to Waco, Texas to lecture the Branch Davidians.”

So, the administration is facing a steep learning curve, during the heat of battle. What could be better?

2. Will it work?

At best, the answer here is: maybe. The pessimists mutter something about a “snowball” and “hell.”

The key to reaching a solution is identifying a reasonable goal. Obama, after deliberating (some would say hesitating) and lecturing the country on the limits of American power, has now set his sights on the stars. He wants to destroy not only the Islamic State but also the ideology that spawned it, and the conditions that gave rise to the ideology.

“The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political — an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed,” Obama said at the UN on Wednesday.

Hard to argue with that. But that’s almost impossible to achieve, given the state of Syria these days.

As Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues in Foreign Policy, “We're caught between the need for a transformative end game that turns Syria and Iraq into functional states and eliminates the grievances on which IS and other Al Qaeda affiliates feed, and a transactional one that sees a narrower goal of degrading IS and keeping it far away from our shores. If there's an effective middle ground, we're nowhere near identifying it.”

In other words, we seesaw between just wanting to keep ourselves safe and remaking the world in our image and likeness.

The debate between airstrikes and “boots on the ground” is interesting. Just about every military figure has argued that bombs alone will not do the trick. But it misses the point: What can boots do, if the ultimate goal is to win hearts and minds? Afghanistan has shown the weaknesses of COIN — counterinsurgency — as a war-winning strategy.

As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

The airstrikes will have some short-term successes: Targeting oil refineries may disrupt IS’ funding, and a few leaders may have been killed. But there are already signs that the group may be spreading into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The more we bomb, the bigger they may get.

Maybe we’re in Wonderland after all.

Before and after aerial pictures released by the US Department of Defense Thursday show damage to an oil refinery in Syria following airstrikes by US and coalition forces. (Shawn Nickel/US Department of Defense/Handout/Reuters)

3. Are we confident in our allies?

Well, that’s another complicated calculus. For the present, several Sunni Arab states are providing cover for US operations — flying alongside US planes and defusing the argument that the US is making war on Islam.

But these allies have their own agendas, competing with each other’s and sometimes conflicting with ours.

We cannot forget that some of the regimes the US is now partnering with have noxious human rights records and may have a very different vision of what comes after this war.

More from GlobalPost: This is the appalling human rights record of the US coalition bombing Syria

US officials say a steady stream of funding for extremist groups comes from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with the governments of those Gulf countries either unable or unwilling to stop it.

Obama has also staked a lot on the “moderate” Syrian rebels, most of whom probably want to fight IS only after Assad is gone — the exact reverse of US priorities.

The Iraqi Army, into which the US has poured billions of dollars and years of training, was not up to the task a few months ago. Why will it now be able to stand and fight after a few hundred trainers and advisers come to town?

4. Do the American people really support this war?

Poll after poll showed that the American people did not want another war in the Middle East — until the horrific beheading videos that showed Westerners being murdered. After standing by while hundreds of thousands of Syrians died at the hands of their own government, the US was finally motivated to act.

As Joseph Stalin supposedly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the deaths of thousands is a statistic.”

So now, it seems, 66 percent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq and Syria — even though only 32 percent think they’ll do any good, according to a YouGov/Huffington Post poll from Sept. 19.

But once the emotion fades, once the reality of the war sets in, enthusiasm will also wane. In the hyper-partisan world of US politics these days, support for the war could become a hot-button issue, and the presidential campaign of 2016 is already gathering steam.

The depth of support will be important — if US allies or enemies sense a weakening of this country’s resolve, the fragile gains that are being made could easily dissolve.

5. Do we know how this thing ends?

In Iraq and Syria, it is unlikely that we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again; too much damage has been done. This means a whole new model will have to be devised. This sounds suspiciously like nation-building — an activity that Obama pooh-poohed at West Point, when he told the cadets that “the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.”

Of course that was 2009, when the president said his administration would “end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility.” Five years later, war in Iraq is on again and Afghanistan is grappling with a serious political crisis engendered by yet another round of flawed elections.

The end game here is maddeningly vague — pie-in-the-sky references to political solutions and inclusive governments notwithstanding. Somehow two fractured nations must overcome religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions, get past a legacy of violence and forge cohesive states.

In Syria, a ragtag collection of “moderate rebels” will dispense with IS, get rid of Assad and then magically morph into statesmen.

But removing a loathsome dictator with no clear idea of who or what comes next is how we got into this mess to begin with.

No, we don’t have a clue as to how this thing is going to end.

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