If CNN sources are correct, Pentagon officials are contemplating advising the president to send conventional ground troops to Syria. There are some good reasons to do that; but if we do, it should be ashort and decisive intervention with a clear goal. We don’t need another long-term occupation of another Muslim dominated country.
ISIS is unique among the world’s terror groups in that it has a standing army that is occupying major cities. Once that army is destroyed, ISIS becomes another band of terrorists on the run; we can live with that. The main sources of ISIS’s military power are located in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. After two and a half years, the Iraqi armed forces have finally gotten to a point where they can retake Mosul, but the ongoing battle has gone on for months. Civilian and Iraqi Army casualties continue to mount, but they will eventually succeed in taking the city and destroying ISIS as a conventional military threat to Iraq’s sovereignty. That leaves Raqqa, and the military situation in Syria is much different than Iraq.
In Syria, there is no conventional military force capable of taking on ISIS in a stand-up urban battle. Without significant western help, Raqqa will remain a festering sore where ISIS can rebuild military capabilities and continue to be a sanctuary from which to launch terror attacks on the United States and its allies. At the present time, the United States is the only nation capable of projecting power to launch a major campaign to take Raqqa and finally annihilate ISIS as a conventional military threat in the region.
Only America is capable of liberating Raqqa without turning the struggle into the kind of Stalingrad-like slugging match that the Battle of Mosul has become. If the Russians thought they could do it, they would have tried. We have the ability to retake the city and destroy the standing ISIS army that is occupying it much more quickly than it will take the Iraqis to recapture Mosul; but, then, we should leave. Keeping a large conventional force in Syria is a recipe for disaster. If we have learned nothing else from the experiences in Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq; it should be that foreign forces can solve immediate problems but they soon create another problem by their very presence.
What is needed in Syria is a punitive expedition aimed at a limited objective. This essentially a very large raid aimed at accomplishing a specific set of objectives. We Americans have a precedent in the 1916 expedition into Mexico against Poncho Villa. In many ways, Poncho Villa’s guerilla army was the ISIS of its day. Its depredations into the United States were unacceptable to President Wilson who authorized the expedition under Brigadier General John “Black Jack” Pershing. The force never captured Villa himself, but it destroyed his capability to threaten New Mexico and Texas. There was no intention of overthrowing the weak Mexican government or to solve the problems of what had virtually become a failed state. The Mexicans eventually came to short-term solutions to their own immediate problems once Villa’s combat power was eliminated as a conventional threat. Similarly, we will not likely capture or kill the would-be ISIS Caliph, al Baghdadi; that would be a bonus, but it should not be the stated mission of the expedition.
Whatever group the governance of the Raqqa area is turned over to is a political decision that should be made before forces are committed. We can certainly leave behind residual forces force to advise and assist whoever takes over with governance and police training, but we should avoid making our foreign presence a cause for a “national resistance” movement.
An expedition can have a clear end state. Liberating Raqqa and destroying ISIS’s capability to act as an occupying military force is an achievable and reasonably quantifiable goal. Fixing Syria is not something we should take aboard. If the Russians want to give a try post-ISIS Iraq, good on them.
Getting American public support for a limited mission expedition is doable. Most Americans understand that ISIS is a cancer, and that allowing it to have major sanctuaries generating revenue is a clear danger to the security of our population. What we have to avoid is the kind of mission creep that got us into trouble in Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. We will not likely ever be able to destroy ISIS as an organization, but we can reduce it to an outlaw band on the run.