After two abortive attempts to conquer Greece, first in 490 BC by Darius, and again in 480-479 BC by his son Xerxes, the Persian Empire found itself faced by an opportunity that had not presented itself in open warfare. As the Hellenes descended into the 27-year bloodletting known as the Peloponnesian War, the Persians took advantage in an indirect way, and managed to badly hurt their old enemy in a way their full force of arms had never been able to.
Focused on the quarrel between Sparta and Athens, at various times all the Greek city-states on both sides sought and accepted Persian financial and military aid. Hellas tore itself apart while the Persians watched.
Today, we are faced with what can only appear as the long-term failure of our first phase of the GWOT, the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Iraq tears itself apart with a body count nearing that of the height of the insurgency in 2007 and Afghanistan looks increasingly to be getting ready to revert to Taliban rule, we find ourselves in a similar position to the Persian Empire in the 5th century BC. While we might have had better military success than either Darius or Xerxes in the short-term, in the long-term the forces of radical Islam are as strong, if not stronger, than ever. Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria have already voiced their impatience, wanting to finish the war against their enemies there in order to strike the West.
But, just as the Athenians and Spartans tore each other to pieces once the external threat of the Persian Empire appeared to have been sufficiently removed, so the Shia and Sunni have embarked on a bloodletting just as vicious (arguably more so) as the Pelopponesian War. Just like Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s, Syria has become a magnet for jihadis from all over the world. Sunni Salafists have arrived from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Europe, and beyond. While not as publicized, the Shia have gathered as well, with Hezbollah from Lebanon and Qods Force from Iran only being the most prominent. Shia militias from Afghanistan have been seen in Damascus fighting for Assad.
As our warfighting capability continues to erode, for both political and economic reasons, it is arguably in our best interests for the Syrian Civil War to go on. Maintaining an open, bleeding wound in the sides of both the Sunni Salafists and Shia hardliners would both cull their fighting strength over time, as well as focus their attention on something other than bombing Western targets.
This is not a long-term solution. There are plenty of problems with it, not the least that combat tends to be rather Darwinian. When the war ends, as end it will, eventually, with or without our hopes or intentions, the survivors will be more experienced and more hardened. The Peloponnesian War wasn’t a long-term solution for the Persians, either; only a few decades later, Alexander had put the Persian Empire at his feet, after conquering the weakened lowland Greeks. The best we could hope for from prolonging the Syrian Civil War, would be some breathing space where the focus of the nastiest of the jihadis is elsewhere. Whether we have the foresight and fortitude to prepare for what comes after that is another question.