We’ve published three books that work as a surreal trilogy about the current events in the Middle East. In Benghazi: The Definitive Report, Brandon and I wrote about how the Arab Spring migrated across the Middle East, eventually blowing up into the Libyan Civil War. While the Arab Spring had been a series of protest movements and scattered civil unrest, it turned into a pitched war in Libya as the rebel forces beat back Gaddafi’s Army. The ebook we wrote looks at how the civil war unfolded and the second- and third-order effects of that war, including American counter-terrorism operations in Libya and how it led to the Benghazi attack.
The day after Gaddafi fell, the next domino to fall in the Arab Spring was on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Syria. Kerry Patton wrote a great ebook called The Syria Report, in which he correctly points out that the West was using Syria as a stratagem in a much larger game—a global chess match against Iran. With Syria out of the way, it would open up new fronts to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon. With that completed, the path would be clear for our real target—Iran.
At the time, I supported Kerry in calling for the United States to stay out of Syria. There were various reasons why I felt this way, and we even debated it openly on the Andrew Wilkow show. First, I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I saw firsthand the mess we created in Iraq, and I am acutely aware of America’s limitations when it comes to counter-insurgency and unconventional warfare. For all the horn tooting that we do about how great Special Forces is at both COIN and UW, the reality is that America has been failing it for a long time, minus a few outliers in Central America. The last thing I wanted to see was our troops committed to a war that bureaucrats would not allow them to win.
Second, I could not identify an actor in Syria I felt we could partner with in any meaningful and productive way. Around 2011, the three major belligerents were Assad’s forces, the Free Syrian Army, and Al-Nusra. Assad was a dictator, but still a voice of moderation in the region up until the war kicked off. Afterwards, he started drinking his own Kool-Aid and thought that the unrest in his country was simply from foreign mercenaries, not from legitimates grievances from the people of his country. At any rate, American foreign policy eventually came to support the removal of Assad. Meanwhile, Nusra were a bunch of Islamist whack jobs cutting out people’s hearts and eating them—literally.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was, and is, an interesting animal. Once filled with many moderates, a lot of them simply defected over to Nusra. The reason? Cold hard cash. Nusra was being funded by wealthy Gulf-State Arabs. They had the cash and they had the guns. The FSA was left out in the cold as the CIA, MI6, and other Western intelligence services dragged their feet and provided fairly minimal aid. It wasn’t enough to allow them to win, just enough to prevent them from being wiped out. One wonders if the real objective was to keep Assad in power but leave him so weak that he would never be a player in regional politics ever again.
Even within the the FSA there is apparently good FSA and bad FSA. As it turned out, it wasn’t just me who could not identify a viable partner force in Syria. In private conversations with members of the intelligence community, I learned that they were having a difficult time at it as well. Some of the efforts to vet the rebel forces also went up in smoke during a pissing contest between JSOC’s Intelligence Support Activity (Task Force Orange) and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Our trilogy of ebooks ended with the culmination of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a lie that opened the door to untold violence and suffering in Syria and Iraq as ISIS emerged as the predominate actor in the region. While the revolution in Syria started with a bourgeoisie class seeking liberalization, the chaos opened the door for a movement straight out of the 12th century, showing us that religious war and barbarous actions have a powerful resonance even in the 21st century.
However, after several years of fighting a viable partner force has emerged in northern Syria. When I traveled to Rojava, I found a competent military force that was not extremist and is committed to freedom and democracy. The Kurdish fighters of the YPG are a partner that we can work with. They’ve proven themselves on the battlefield and through their actions.
I do think it is important not to fall in love with our partner forces. The YPG has some issues we will have to deal with. Some of them are not personal hang-ups I have, but rather legal issues we may run into. Examples include associations with the PKK—still considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The use of teenagers (may be considered child soldiers) on that battlefield might also be an issue, even though they are volunteers, not conscripts.
Other issues revolve around what happens after the war against ISIS is over. With ISIS defeated, Assad will turn his military might against Rojava, seeking to regain the economically important oils fields in northern Syria. Would America be willing to stay committed to our partner force as the enemy transitions from ISIS to Assad’s military? Perhaps more importantly, what about the Kurd’s longstanding conflict with the Turkish government? Turkey is unlikely to simply accept a Kurdish state on their southern border.
While I generally don’t support military intervention in foreign conflicts, I can now see that part of the reason why this war has spun so out of control is because we failed to act in 2011 and 2012. If we had taken some decisive steps, ISIS never would have grown this powerful in the first place.
Now is the time to step into the game. With an acceptable partner found with the YPG in Syria, the United States should take action before it is too late. If we don’t, it will be Iran that will consolidate power after the war is over, as they are already hopelessly intertwined with the Shia militias in Iraq.
Note: The featured image is a little girl I photographed in Rojava; she was actually smiling most of the time but got a little camera shy!