Monday, March 20, 2017

Five-Sided Argument

Matthew Continetti at The Free Beacon lays out many of the difficulties that will have to be faced once ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria. It would be a mistake, he writes, to think that the problems in the Middle East or even the struggle against Islamic terrorism will be over when ISIS is no longer able to field an army. Here's his lede:
The Islamic Caliphate announced in 2014 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, is approaching the end of its short and terrible life. Iraqi forces, supported by Americans, have reclaimed the eastern half of Mosul and are retaking the western one. Kurdish militias in Syria, also backed by the United States, are homing in on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Word came this week that a contingent of Marines has been deployed in Syria to position heavy artillery for the fight ahead. "We expect that within a few weeks there will be a siege of the city," a militia spokesman tells Reuters.

ISIS doesn't have a chance. American air and ground forces, working with local proxies, are about to terminate its existence as a state. "Crushed," to paraphrase President Trump. A just—and popular—cause.

But that won't be the end. Recent events suggest that the military defeat of ISIS is just the beginning of a renewed American involvement in Iraq and Syria. And whether the American public and president are prepared for or willing to accept the probable costs of such involvement is unknown. That is reason for concern.

To glimpse the future, look at the city of Manbij in northeast Syria. Humvees and Strykers flying the American flag have appeared there in recent days. The mission? Not to defeat ISIS. Our proxies kicked them out last year. What we are doing in Manbij is something altogether different from a military assault: a "deterrence and reassurance" operation meant to dissuade rival factions from massacring one another. If you can't remember when President Obama or President Trump called for such an operation, that's because they never did.

And there's a twist. One of the factions we are trying to intimidate is none other than the army of Turkey, a NATO member and purported ally. Turkey moved in on Manbij not because of ISIS but because of the Kurds. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish autocrat, opposes one of our Kurdish proxies. He says the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, which has conducted an insurgency against his government for decades. Yet the YPG is also the most effective indigenous anti-ISIS force on the ground. We need it to take Raqqa.

Things get even more complicated. Also in Manbij are the Russians, who are helping units of the Syrian army police a group of villages. The Kurds invited them, too, presumably as a separate hedge against Turkey. To keep score: The Americans, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds, and the Syrians are all converging on an impoverished city in the middle of nowhere that has no strategic importance to the United States.
From about 1950 to 2004 the United States was at war for about six years (in Vietnam). We were accustomed to living at relative peace. Since 2004, however, we have been at constant war, and it looks to many experts like things may continue that way for decades. The Islamic world, or at least a significant chunk of it, will not let the West live in peace. They see Westerners as infidels who must either be converted, subjugated, or killed. As long as we refuse to submit we will have to fight for the day we stop is the day the Islamists win. Yet the Middle East is hopelessly chaotic. Everybody is warring against everybody else in a senseless free-for-all that seems to offer no hope of resolution.

The balance of Continetti's analysis highlights the confused nature of the region and the complex array of combatants and actors. He closes with this:
A contributor to The Weekly Standard likes to tell the following story: Covering the Lebanese civil war in 1983, he visited an outpost of U.S. Marines. They came under sniper fire from one militia. Then another militia started shooting. Then the Syrians joined in. At which point a lance corporal turned to him and said, "Sir, never get involved in a five-sided argument."