The US has been accused of not doing enough in its leadership of the West’s bid to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Intervention is still highly limited by political opposition to placing large numbers of Western boots on the ground in either war torn country.
In Iraq the US will be doing more, by sending in more special forces, additional helicopter gunships and artillery, as well as sending additional financial backing for the Iraqi Kurds, for example.
While it is often necessary to think of the two countries as one war (especially in the context of defeating IS), Syria is of course by far the more complicated conflict. IS itself adheres to this single-conflict view, by conspicuously dismantling the Iraqi/Syrian border, set up by Sykes-Picot a century ago, along the territory it controls.
But these are still two countries. Any practical scenario for a post war peace will recognise this (leaving aside the question of the Kurds as a potential third entity). What is also clear is the complexity in Syria, where multiple sides are fighting against each other, like some sort of far-fetched multiplayer strategy gaming scenario come true.
The problem is that it is impossible to defeat IS in one country and not the other – much like fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan while neighbouring Pakistan has offered safe havens. However, by ramping up involvement in Syria in the same way as Iraq, the mess of combatants involved means the consequences are tougher to control, to game, or even to visualise.
For example, news that the CIA has plans to arm Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (so-called “MANPADS”) – to bring down enemy helicopters or jets – has clear consequences. The skies above Syria belong to several players, but essentially two sides: the US and its coalition; and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian air force plus its major Russian ally.
It is only months since Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet on its Syrian border caused international consequences and stoked fears of conflict between Nato member Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, briefly reminding people of the risk of a return to Cold War-era Doomsday scenarios.
Such a move edges Syria ever closer to a full-blown proxy war between Russia and the West, with the mess of local actors in-between. A major historical parallel is the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the so-called “Charlie Wilson’s War”, in which the CIA armed the Mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles to destroy Soviet gunships and armoured vehicles, thereby turning the tide of that messy conflict.
Arming Syrian rebels with similar weapons would see them aimed once more at Russian airpower, as well as Assad’s Syrian government aircraft. It has little to do with IS. Of course it might succeed in curbing Assad’s ambition of becoming the dominant player in Syria’s peace negotiations for a post war settlement. Some of them might end up in the wrong (IS) hands, however, and potentially be fired at US and Western gunships and planes engaged in bombing IS.
The move also risks escalating the conflict, internationally, towards the Cold War level of tension which we see glimpses of with Russian aircraft buzzing the Americans as Nato exercises off Russia’s Baltic Sea coast, to warn Putin against aggression against the Baltic states (Nato members) in a potential repeat of what has done in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
How would the Russians respond to one or more of their fighter aircraft or gunships being shot down by a rebel-fired missile supplied by the US? It might be poetic justice after what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 – shot down by Russian troops embedded with Ukrainian rebels in eastern Ukraine - killing 298 people, many of them western civilians.
Putin is not known for moral scruples, so the hypocrisy of crying foul about a hypothetical shoot down of a Russian military plane in Syria would probably be lost on him. How far would he go in response?
While nobody wants a major conflict, history is littered with examples of wars (or costly skirmishes) being sparked by unplanned events on the ground running away from what decision-makers have planned for. What I mean by that is that the web of complexity that is Syria is fertile ground for far-reaching unintended consequences in international security.
Just something to consider before bedtime…
(Excuse: Written quickly without first clearly ordering my thoughts on the matter.)