The possibility of airstrikes against Syria demonstrates yet again how policy undermines military strategy.
On April 12, Britain’s emergency “war cabinet” sat to deliberate airstrikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria as a response to yet another chemical attack against his own people. By late evening there was backing of Prime Minister Theresa May’s position to undertake military action as part of a US-led coalition, which was launched on April 14 with precision strikes hitting suspected chemical weapons sites in Damascus and Homs.
The war in Syria has been raging for seven long years, having been allowed to spiral out of control by the international community. The current situation, however, shows an alarming continuation of a trend that has blighted the very fabric of Western policy in the region. Conflict and intervention have taken on a new dynamic since 9/11, underpinned by a staggering misunderstanding of the realities of war, the variables and the two-way dimension that military operations entail. Ultimately, policy and strategy have not found common understanding in recent campaigns, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. The failure in both cases falls at the feet of the political class and leaders at given junctures.
President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair instigated the current status quo in intervention policy in the early 2000s and immediately undermined and systematically neglected the strategic implications of this new policy. The infamous “war on terror,” which subsequently morphed into the “long war,” failed to understand war and its nature, emphasizing, or rather suggesting, perpetual conflict. These new campaigns saw endless strategic changes on the ground as dynamics fundamentally changed. Because strategy could not serve the ends of policy, the appreciation and understanding of war was fundamentally missed.
In Afghanistan, the British mission continuously changed along strategic lines, as the original policy became convoluted and ultimately lost. There was no consistence from the starting position of reconstruction and development, through to overt operations to win land from the Taliban to advising and training the local military. Similarly, in the US-led Iraq campaign, policy and strategy were at loggerheads. During his first press conference as US forces commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus commented on the strategic decision to significantly increase troop numbers as part of the surge campaign by suggesting that military action was necessary, but “not sufficient.” As Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani wrote in 2007, Bush and Blair “allegedly launched the war at first to save the world from Saddam’s WMD, then to establish democracy, then to fight al-Qaeda’s terrorism and now to prevent civil war and Syrian or Iranian intervention.”
Oratory from President Donald Trump in recent days has been its usual drumbeat of aggression amidst a global symposium of watered-down anger directed at Assad. But throughout the last decade, rhetoric has failed to establish a cohesive policy, both on a state and multilateral levels. “Enough is enough,” declared Prime Minister May after the Islamic State-inspired attacks on London Bridge. Her predecessor, David Cameron, likewise suggested the UK faced an “existential” threat from the group. Despite this, resources were not aligned to the military to resolve these problems; in fact, defense spending was cut.
Since the end of the Cold War, among the international political class there has been a desire to engage in short wars — wars with a tangible end, winners as such. Iraq and Afghanistan have frightened us into inaction due to our incoherent policy over this period. Russia has been able to annex Crimea, the Islamic State still exists (despite Donald Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit outta them”) — the scourge of swathes of territory across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia — and the West still has no answer.
Policy toward Syria has been shaped by our post-9/11 conflicts as both the US and the UK were undoubtedly war-weary after a decade of conflict. The emphasis and time to intervene in Syria has long passed, in part due to the political elites not having the stomach to sell another military campaign. As the war in Afghanistan was winding down during 2013-2014, Syria instead deteriorated into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, creating mass migration of refugees, the destruction of vast proportion of the country and a perfect vacuum for Islamic State to exploit.
But this latest argument for airstrikes suggests once more that no matter how strongly we may feel about chemical attacks against the civilian population, that it is yet another ad-hoc policy with absolutely no long-term strategic consideration. Airstrikes will undoubtedly cause casualties among Syrian government forces, slow and hinder Assad’s murderous military machine — but what then? Is it only crimes of this nature that deserve intervention? Once we mete out punishment for the Douma chemical attack, will we then step back and allow Assad to continue his brutal destruction of all who oppose him? The uncertainty amongst political leaders, and indeed amongst both the governing party and the opposition, about backing the airstrikes raises more policy questions than answers.
Bombs, no matter how precise their laser targeting is, will not end the conflict in Syria, where clear policy and understanding of military strategy remain wanting. The British government should work closer with planning and strategy advisors, revert to academics and scholars of modern warfare and terrorism to understand the new rules of war and the pitfalls of policy without substance. The military can be part of the solution, but not until the political class changes its ideological framework and understands that post-9/11 conflicts were flawed conceptually, creating ultimately unwinnable wars for the military.
War should never be treated as a political end, a knee-jerk reaction to an event; it should never be viewed through that prism. War is not, as Clausewitz suggested, the continuation of policy, but rather it is, as Syria has proved, the very failure of policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.