Barack Obama’s announcement on Friday that American special forces will take a more active role in the war in is for many critics of his foreign policy a confirmation that the US has inched deeper into a chaotic conflict.
It’s also an opportunity for presidential candidates to both praise and denounce him. And most Republican and Democratic presidential candidates propose doing even more than , which skeptics call “mission creep”. The war pits the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, against various rebels and the jihadi group Islamic State, and now involves the US, Russia, Iran, Gulf states, Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq. Here’s how foreign policy might look under the ideas of potential presidents.
Nearly all the candidates of both parties have called for a no-fly zone over Syria, arguing that denying Assad’s air force will better protect civilians and rebels from bombing runs.
“A superpower can impose a no-fly zone if it decides it wants to,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “But the problems are it’s very expensive, no one is willing to pay the price, and these days there are serious risks of escalation.”
A no-fly zone would require far more airstrikes on airfields and anti-aircraft batteries, for instance, putting American pilots in danger against Syrian missiles and jets. Russia’s entry into the war further complicates the proposal, increasing the risk of shooting down Russian aircraft .
And while a future president could warn Vladimir Putin to fly strikes at his own peril, the US stands to lose more should Putin simply continue strikes. An American president’s choice would then be to stand down or risk a wider, far more dangerous war – and political disaster at home – by firing on Russian pilots.
Nor would a no-fly zone offer certain protection to civilians or rebels whom an American president finds acceptable. Most of the war’s dead – civilian or combatant – have not been killed from the air but , by bullets, mortars and artillery shells, according to .
The statistics suggest a no-fly zone would not do much to staunch the bleeding of civilians or any friendly rebels. In contrast, Russia’s strategy of indiscriminate bombing boosts Assad’s much more limited aims, which do not take civilian casualties into account.
Only Republican Rand Paul and Democrats Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders a no-fly zone.
‘Safe zones’ and special forces
Billionaire has maintained that “safe zones” on the ground in Syria and Iraq would help end the war and solve the refugee crisis, and said that Turkey and the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar should lead the effort with US help.
But while a ground campaign could defend civilians from the deadliest threats, it would also entail all the dangers of mission creep and the painstaking logistics of a war effort. One American has on an Isis facility, and in Syria last week.
“To keep it safe would require fighting,” the defense secretary, Ash Carter, told Congress on Tuesday. “You need to think in each case … who’s in, who is kept out and how the enforcement of it is done.”
Any campaign would probably need snipers, radar and recon teams, artillery and special operations teams – if not full infantry battalions, Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, has noted in .
“The types of interventions that proponents have endorsed for Syria are often based on deep misunderstandings of how US force was used on behalf of humanitarian missions in the past,” Zenko wrote. “Proposals that consciously ignore or downplay the amount and type of force needed to protect civilians are just wishful thinking.”
Biddle agreed, adding that another problem is that safe zones offer cover to both civilians and combatants.
“Say you set up a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, and lo and behold guerrillas start operating within it, and the government starts firing artillery into it. What do you do then? Silence the artillery by expanding your perimeter? Push the perimeter until it’s all of Syria?”
He also noted the problem of policing – for instance, the dilemma of a suspected rebel whose family vouches for the person’s innocence.
“You don’t have to walk very far down the thought experiment to end up with all sorts of problems and ambiguities,” Biddle said.
Senator is the most vocal supporter of embedding special forces with rebel and Kurdish ground troops.
Arming rebels and Kurdish fighters
Most of the candidates support arms for rebels, though few have specified which groups they find acceptable and how they would vet them – the same problems that have slowed Pentagon efforts in the last two years.
More problematically, most of the Syrian rebels eager for weapons and aid are not interested in a concerted fight against Isis. “While there are tens of thousands of rebels willing to receive training and equipment to go after the Assad regime, few are willing to fight the Islamic State,” Zenko earlier this year.
Arming anti-Assad rebels may suit US interests, but it would also pit the US against Russia and Iran in a proxy war. Even regional allies with American priorities about Isis, Biddle noted, which is why Turkey continues to bomb Kurds and Saudi Arabia and the UAE , most notably in Syria but also . These same conflicted interests make it unlikely that the nations would ever band together to form their own “safe zone”.
“They all have bigger fish to fry,” he said. “We’re the biggest, but we’re the only one who thinks Isil is the threat to be resolved first.”
Although Kurdish fighters have proven the most reliable allies for US ground offensives, Turkish warplanes have in Syria and Iraq, meaning increased arms for the Kurds could fuel a war between two American allies on yet another border.
Arming Kurdish fighters could also lead to the US , if it hasn’t inadvertently done so already. In October Amnesty International the Kurdish group YPG of human rights violations.
Rubio, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham have spoken strongly in favor of arming Syrian rebel groups and Kurds, Ted Cruz has called for directly arming the Kurds, urged arms for rebels and Kurds while she was secretary of state, and even O’Malley has said the US should “probably” arm the fighters.
Troops in Afghanistan
All candidates except Senator Rand Paul have said they support Obama’s decision to extend the US military presence in to 2017, though a handful say they only do so out of deference to the generals’ advice.
But the presence of 5,500 to 10,000 troops, as the president and candidates prescribe, would have little effect on the war against the Taliban, experts said. Most said a steady run of airstrikes had prevented the Taliban from massing, and that the end of “combat operations” – resulting in a lull in airstrikes – had given the militants opportunity to .
The spread of American troops at four airbases around Afghanistan and continued airstrikes – including one that – suggests Obama plans to let generals use as much airpower as possible to support Afghan forces. But neither he nor any candidate has shown any appetite for a major reinforcement.
Barring dramatic changes to Barack Obama’s plans and the politics of the Middle East, 2017 will begin with 5,500 troops across Afghanistan and a number of special forces teams operating in Syria and .
Paul, Trump and Cruz have all offered variations on a plan that could see US forces withdraw from the region, ceding a lead military role to Russia and Iran but continuing airstrikes against Isis. But while staying out of foreign conflicts has appeal at home to Democrats and alike – and arguably supports US interests – “it still sacrifices interests that are real, even if they’re limited,” Biddle said.
“There’s the prospective future terrorist threat of an ungoverned region, the risk of a war if that metastasizes and spreads,” he said. “If you wash your hands of it, you’re running a social science experiment to sit back and see how many of these bad things unfold. That’s a really bad choice for a person that has the power to make a difference.”
Not least on the minds of the president or any would-be commander in chief, he added, was that to do nothing “hands the opposition a bunch of really obvious talking points”.