The U.S. Dilemma in Syria

Professor of International Affairs Stephen Biddle unpacks the problems with U.S. military approach against ISIS.

December 09, 2015
Discussions about ISIS and international terrorism have reached new levels of panic, especially following the Paris attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. But during a lecture Monday at the Elliott School, Professor of International Affairs Stephen Biddle said that the rhetoric is wildly disproportionate to what most Americans are willing to do to address the problem—leaving the United States waging a frustrating and unsuccessful military campaign to combat the Islamic State.
The Options
Dr. Biddle, who served on General David Petraeus' Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Iraq, spoke the day after President Obama laid out his plans to destroy ISIS. Dr. Biddle explained that the threats in Syria are real but limited. Therefore, there are three broad ways the United States could respond militarily. The government could decide the threats are not significant and choose to stay out of the conflict without losing lives or spending money. It could come up with limited military strategies—a difficult and expensive middle ground that likely won’t achieve much. Or, it could overspend to secure its interests no matter the price. 
“Of these three generic options, the middle is the worst,” Dr. Biddle. “If you overspend, at least you secure the interest. If you stay the heck out, at least you lose cheaply. If you take the middle ground, you tend to lose expensively.”
That’s where the United States is now, Dr. Biddle continued, and where it may be for a long time. The Obama administration has incrementally escalated its level of involvement to address growing public concerns in what Dr. Biddle calls “a recipe for stalemate.” Efforts include airstrikes, helping and training forces on the ground, humanitarian assistance and assembling a coalition of states to contain ISIS—but these strategies are expensive, and they aren’t drastic enough to have real results.
American Interests
The interests at stake with respect to the Islamic State include homeland security, economics and humanitarian issues. Syria marks one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises, with 200,000 deaths and 4 million refugees. Dr. Biddle pointed out that despite concerns, the United States rarely uses military force for purely humanitarian interests. 
 The conflict is taking place in a part of the globe responsible for energy supply, which means it will have economic implications. Dr. Biddle explained that if the conflict spreads, it could embroil the entire Middle East energy industry. That has the potential to double world oil prices and knock American GDP down by three to five percentage points.
The homeland security threat has been the most pressing concern to Americans, Dr. Biddle said. ISIS is more dangerous than other jihadi organizations because it controls a continuous territory that it can use for planning attacks, and it has been able to attract foreign fighters with valid passports from other countries. But Dr. Biddle explained that the number of people who have actually died from international terrorism is insignificant compared to other causes of death in the United States, quipping that the percentage is small enough to be considered a “rounding error” 
Complicating the situation further is the fact that American interests don’t match the goals of other actors in the conflict. Kurdistan’s first priority is to establish an independent state. Iraq’s government is trying to balance violent elites vying for power, and therefore won’t fully support the U.S. arming and professionalizing its military. 
“[Interests] are seriously misaligned in ways that make this style of war-making very inefficient and produces very incomplete resolutions of the military problem on the ground,” Dr. Biddle said. 
What the U.S. Can Do
He estimates it would take 160,000 American soldiers to create a stable government alternative in Syria. Without this manpower, it would be hard to resolve humanitarian, economic or homeland security issues, since the same underlying political problems that gave rise to the Islamic State would still exist.
Thus, the U.S. has found itself in today’s awkward quagmire. Dr. Biddle said he would grade the Obama administration most harshly for failing to articulate the dilemma to the public. He said he would have liked to see the president make speeches like Sunday’s address a half dozen more times in the last year. He also said he wished the president would have persuasively explained the limits of what the current approach can achieve. 
Dr. Biddle added that his best advice to the administration would be to spend less money.
“If you’re going to be in the middle box where you’re probably not going to secure your interest, I’d rather do that cheaper rather than more expensively,” Dr. Biddle said.