All posts by Douglas Macgregor

The Case for Leaving Syria

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Professor Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, frequently stated , “Wars are not tactical exercises writ large… They are conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them.” The professor must have anticipated the Syrian Civil War.

In Syria, the civil war that killed as many as 400,000 people is over. Moscow’s ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, is the victor.

It’s true that the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition— virtually indistinguishablefrom a broad range of Sunni Islamist terrorist groups—to Assad clings to life inside Syria’s Idlib enclave , but its days are numbered. Thanks to an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sunni jihadist forces will eventually leave the demilitarized zone, patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces, together with forces from Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and Iranian-backed Shia Arab paramilitaries, have essentially erased Islamic State-controlled territory from the map. Clearly, an American military withdrawal from Syria would seem in order, right?

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria , Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, is already recasting the American military mission in Northeast Syria as both ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS and as “ contesting more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen .” Jeffrey adds, “ This means we are not in a hurry to pull out .”

Is this a new form of diplomatic mission creep? Are “ Never Trumpers ” like Robert Kagan and Eliot Abrams now guiding Trump foreign policy? It’s complicated.

In the Northeast corner of Syria, anti-Western Marxist Kurds remain committed to an independent, national homeland in Syria—a development that Ankara views as an existential threat to the Turkey. Since Syria’s U.S.-equipped Kurdish militia provides the backbone for Washington’s anti-ISIS ground force Washington keeps special forces troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, thereby placing 2,000 U.S. troops directly in the path of a potential Turkish Army offensive.

Israel is acutely sensitive to what happens in Syria. Until fifteen Russians were killed in an accident Moscow blames on Israel’s fighter jets , Russian acquiescence allowed Israelis to launch more than 200 air and missile strikes against Iranian military sites inside Syria. Israel wants the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria to remain and act as a shock absorber for Israel; obstructing the movement of people and arms from Iran to Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and protecting Israel’s potential Kurdish ally from Turkish attack.

In sum, the Syrian civil war is over and the “ enemy of my enemy ” principle applies to all of the regional actors. There are no moderates among the Sunni Arab or Kurdish factions, Turkey is at most a paper ally, and Washington’s strategic partners—Israel and Saudi Arabia—have interests that do not necessarily align with President Trump’s stated goal of building regional stability .

The United States has no strategic interest in Syria that justifies a war with Russia, Iran or Turkey. A war with any of these states would destroy the prosperity that President Trump has worked tirelessly to create. Instead, it makes sense to withdraw U.S. forces. An American military withdrawal from Syria would eliminate the fragile strategic rationale for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria and severely obviate the few shared interests that tie Iran to Russia .

Moscow does not view its interest in Damascus in isolation from Israeli national security or the Islamist threat to Russia. Erdogan’s clandestine support for his Islamist allies is never far from Putin’s thoughts, and Putin knows that Tel Aviv has nothing to gain from hostility toward Moscow .

Given this strategic picture, Professor Michael Howard would advise President Trump to simply “get out” of Syria. Like most Americans, Howard would not be persuaded that further developments in Syria are, or plausibly could be, a serious threat to the United States, but congress is another matter.

Members of both parties need cash to fund their re-election campaigns and the liberal interventionist-neoconservative foreign policy machine is strictly bipartisan. The machine has cash, but it is fighting a losing battle.

Americans are not interested in war . In 1975, it was “No more Vietnams;” today, it’s “No more Iraqs, Libyas, Nigers, Somalias, Afghanistans” or any number of self-defeating interventions in dysfunctional societies and failed states.

Now, on the precipice of more cuts in defense spending with the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at stake, the misguided use of U.S. military power and the disaster it creates are not affordable. Politicians and their dependence on donors for reelection guarantee a slow death to the employment of U.S. military power as the global shock absorber, but it is dying.

Colonel (ret.) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD, and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory , Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Reprinted with author's permission from National Interest.

The Case for Leaving Syria

undefined

Professor Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, frequently stated , “Wars are not tactical exercises writ large… They are conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them.” The professor must have anticipated the Syrian Civil War.

In Syria, the civil war that killed as many as 400,000 people is over. Moscow’s ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, is the victor.

It’s true that the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition— virtually indistinguishablefrom a broad range of Sunni Islamist terrorist groups—to Assad clings to life inside Syria’s Idlib enclave , but its days are numbered. Thanks to an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sunni jihadist forces will eventually leave the demilitarized zone, patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces, together with forces from Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and Iranian-backed Shia Arab paramilitaries, have essentially erased Islamic State-controlled territory from the map. Clearly, an American military withdrawal from Syria would seem in order, right?

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria , Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, is already recasting the American military mission in Northeast Syria as both ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS and as “ contesting more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen .” Jeffrey adds, “ This means we are not in a hurry to pull out .”

Is this a new form of diplomatic mission creep? Are “ Never Trumpers ” like Robert Kagan and Eliot Abrams now guiding Trump foreign policy? It’s complicated.

In the Northeast corner of Syria, anti-Western Marxist Kurds remain committed to an independent, national homeland in Syria—a development that Ankara views as an existential threat to the Turkey. Since Syria’s U.S.-equipped Kurdish militia provides the backbone for Washington’s anti-ISIS ground force Washington keeps special forces troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, thereby placing 2,000 U.S. troops directly in the path of a potential Turkish Army offensive.

Israel is acutely sensitive to what happens in Syria. Until fifteen Russians were killed in an accident Moscow blames on Israel’s fighter jets , Russian acquiescence allowed Israelis to launch more than 200 air and missile strikes against Iranian military sites inside Syria. Israel wants the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria to remain and act as a shock absorber for Israel; obstructing the movement of people and arms from Iran to Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and protecting Israel’s potential Kurdish ally from Turkish attack.

In sum, the Syrian civil war is over and the “ enemy of my enemy ” principle applies to all of the regional actors. There are no moderates among the Sunni Arab or Kurdish factions, Turkey is at most a paper ally, and Washington’s strategic partners—Israel and Saudi Arabia—have interests that do not necessarily align with President Trump’s stated goal of building regional stability .

The United States has no strategic interest in Syria that justifies a war with Russia, Iran or Turkey. A war with any of these states would destroy the prosperity that President Trump has worked tirelessly to create. Instead, it makes sense to withdraw U.S. forces. An American military withdrawal from Syria would eliminate the fragile strategic rationale for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria and severely obviate the few shared interests that tie Iran to Russia .

Moscow does not view its interest in Damascus in isolation from Israeli national security or the Islamist threat to Russia. Erdogan’s clandestine support for his Islamist allies is never far from Putin’s thoughts, and Putin knows that Tel Aviv has nothing to gain from hostility toward Moscow .

Given this strategic picture, Professor Michael Howard would advise President Trump to simply “get out” of Syria. Like most Americans, Howard would not be persuaded that further developments in Syria are, or plausibly could be, a serious threat to the United States, but congress is another matter.

Members of both parties need cash to fund their re-election campaigns and the liberal interventionist-neoconservative foreign policy machine is strictly bipartisan. The machine has cash, but it is fighting a losing battle.

Americans are not interested in war . In 1975, it was “No more Vietnams;” today, it’s “No more Iraqs, Libyas, Nigers, Somalias, Afghanistans” or any number of self-defeating interventions in dysfunctional societies and failed states.

Now, on the precipice of more cuts in defense spending with the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at stake, the misguided use of U.S. military power and the disaster it creates are not affordable. Politicians and their dependence on donors for reelection guarantee a slow death to the employment of U.S. military power as the global shock absorber, but it is dying.

Colonel (ret.) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD, and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory , Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Reprinted with author's permission from National Interest.

The Case for Leaving Syria

undefined

Professor Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, frequently stated , “Wars are not tactical exercises writ large… They are conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them.” The professor must have anticipated the Syrian Civil War.

In Syria, the civil war that killed as many as 400,000 people is over. Moscow’s ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, is the victor.

It’s true that the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition— virtually indistinguishablefrom a broad range of Sunni Islamist terrorist groups—to Assad clings to life inside Syria’s Idlib enclave , but its days are numbered. Thanks to an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sunni jihadist forces will eventually leave the demilitarized zone, patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces, together with forces from Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and Iranian-backed Shia Arab paramilitaries, have essentially erased Islamic State-controlled territory from the map. Clearly, an American military withdrawal from Syria would seem in order, right?

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria , Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, is already recasting the American military mission in Northeast Syria as both ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS and as “ contesting more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen .” Jeffrey adds, “ This means we are not in a hurry to pull out .”

Is this a new form of diplomatic mission creep? Are “ Never Trumpers ” like Robert Kagan and Eliot Abrams now guiding Trump foreign policy? It’s complicated.

In the Northeast corner of Syria, anti-Western Marxist Kurds remain committed to an independent, national homeland in Syria—a development that Ankara views as an existential threat to the Turkey. Since Syria’s U.S.-equipped Kurdish militia provides the backbone for Washington’s anti-ISIS ground force Washington keeps special forces troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, thereby placing 2,000 U.S. troops directly in the path of a potential Turkish Army offensive.

Israel is acutely sensitive to what happens in Syria. Until fifteen Russians were killed in an accident Moscow blames on Israel’s fighter jets , Russian acquiescence allowed Israelis to launch more than 200 air and missile strikes against Iranian military sites inside Syria. Israel wants the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria to remain and act as a shock absorber for Israel; obstructing the movement of people and arms from Iran to Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and protecting Israel’s potential Kurdish ally from Turkish attack.

In sum, the Syrian civil war is over and the “ enemy of my enemy ” principle applies to all of the regional actors. There are no moderates among the Sunni Arab or Kurdish factions, Turkey is at most a paper ally, and Washington’s strategic partners—Israel and Saudi Arabia—have interests that do not necessarily align with President Trump’s stated goal of building regional stability .

The United States has no strategic interest in Syria that justifies a war with Russia, Iran or Turkey. A war with any of these states would destroy the prosperity that President Trump has worked tirelessly to create. Instead, it makes sense to withdraw U.S. forces. An American military withdrawal from Syria would eliminate the fragile strategic rationale for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria and severely obviate the few shared interests that tie Iran to Russia .

Moscow does not view its interest in Damascus in isolation from Israeli national security or the Islamist threat to Russia. Erdogan’s clandestine support for his Islamist allies is never far from Putin’s thoughts, and Putin knows that Tel Aviv has nothing to gain from hostility toward Moscow .

Given this strategic picture, Professor Michael Howard would advise President Trump to simply “get out” of Syria. Like most Americans, Howard would not be persuaded that further developments in Syria are, or plausibly could be, a serious threat to the United States, but congress is another matter.

Members of both parties need cash to fund their re-election campaigns and the liberal interventionist-neoconservative foreign policy machine is strictly bipartisan. The machine has cash, but it is fighting a losing battle.

Americans are not interested in war . In 1975, it was “No more Vietnams;” today, it’s “No more Iraqs, Libyas, Nigers, Somalias, Afghanistans” or any number of self-defeating interventions in dysfunctional societies and failed states.

Now, on the precipice of more cuts in defense spending with the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at stake, the misguided use of U.S. military power and the disaster it creates are not affordable. Politicians and their dependence on donors for reelection guarantee a slow death to the employment of U.S. military power as the global shock absorber, but it is dying.

Colonel (ret.) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD, and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory , Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Reprinted with author's permission from National Interest.

The Only Way Donald Trump Can Truly Put America First

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Intentionally or not, President Donald Trump filled many of his top national security and foreign-policy positions with Neo-Wilsonian, Bush-Obama era Liberal Interventionists; an action that became a source of endless frustration for the president. On issues ranging from preventing transgender people from serving in the armed forces to disengaging US forces from Afghanistan and Syria , Trump’s own national-security team has actively obstructed the president’s defense- and foreign-policy agenda.

President Trump always wanted to disengage US forces from overseas commitments that in his view had no direct relation to American national security. Trump also rejected the alleged permanence of the postwar liberal order; an order that was dissolving when Clinton was in office. Instead, Trump sought to enhance American influence with economic strength by focusing on trade, job creation; enforcing the rule of law, immigration and border security.

On the economic front, President Trump broke through the opposition, reinvigorated America’s stagnant economy and began changing the Cold War trade arrangements that favored foreign competitors and harmed American workers and businesses for decades. In Northeast Asia, he has defused the Korean Conflict and at this point it appears that the Korean Peninsula will no longer figure prominently in the US national military strategy.

However, President Trump’s attempt to secure American borders, especially America’s southern border has met with failure. The failure is tragic because violence inside Mexico has reached horrific dimensions.

The rule of law has collapsed. Mexicans of all ages are being killed so frequently that the number of homicides in 2018 will likely exceed last year’s total of 29,168. According to Mexican authorities, drug-trafficking gangs pay around 1.27 billion pesos (some $100 million) a month in bribes to municipal police officers nationwide.

To this depressing picture must be added the growing connections between Mexican drug cartels like Los Zetas and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda making Mexico’s use of the United States as a relief valve for its poor anddiscontented masses extremely dangerous.

Criminal elements in Mexico are equipped with the latestsurveillance and communications technology. They can easily maneuver to locations along the border where the US police presence is minimal or non-existent. Adding more police to the thousands already on the border won’t help. Worst of all, in any future war the metastasizing nexus of criminality and terrorism south of the Rio Grande will create a second front for US forces.

Given the sophisticated threat, the only way to effectively secure America’s border with Mexico is to commit the regular army to patrol and defend all but the legal crossing points with a mix of air and ground forces, at least until an effective barrier system is in place. In addition, Washington and Mexico City should consider combined military action inside Mexico against transnational criminal organizations for the benefit of both nations.

So why have neither the Secretary of Defense nor the Joint Chiefs urged such action? One reason may be the American military’s oppressive atmosphere of political correctness ; a climate in which strategic discourse is constrained by fear of being called a bigot or racist for suggesting action to secure America’s borders.

There are other reasons. Defending America’s borders, a mission the regular Army performed for over one hundred years between 1846 and 1948, isn’t likely to justify more manpower or force structure. As a result, the border mission does not appeal to serving officers the way it appealed to Patton, Eisenhower, Truscott, Harmon and practically every Army general officer who fought in World War II.

Clinging to the Cold War past is far more attractive. In fact, active and retired Army four-star generals have registered their indignation at the president’s actions to alter the US military’s overseas presence, an expensive legacy of the Cold War security system.

Gen. Robert Abrams, the Army four-star nominated to be the next US Forces Korea (USFK) commander, recently criticized President Trump’s decision to suspend joint military exercises between the United States and the Republic of Korea. He has argued that President Trump’s decision is undermining combat readiness by creating an ostensibly unwanted atmosphere of détente . In 2017, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey went even further by insisting that President Trump was a “serious threat to US national security.”

Coming from the leader of the failed war on drugs McCaffrey’s statement is rich, but his comments and those of Abrams speak volumes. Thinking and behavior of this kind is harmful because it skews the way senior officers in the armed forces think about warfare. In the international system war is always possible, but managing the risk of war involves much more than reacting to events with escalating threats.

For instance, sailing a large surface fleet into the South China Sea with the goal of “warning China” is hardly good risk management. It’s particularly ill-advised in an area where the Navy’s warships are vulnerable to a broad range of Chinese surface-to-surface missiles, loitering munitions, and submarine-launched weapons linked to an array of space and terrestrial-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

Accidents happen . An unwanted incident that results in American losses in the South China Sea would signal weakness, not strength, which is the true purpose of naval power. Sooner or later, US naval losses in the South China Sea would invite military aggression against the United States in other regions. Put more bluntly, dragging the United States into a war with China involving territorial disputes on behalf of the Philippines,Communist Vietnam , or Taiwan is stupid.

Why is the Department of Defense on this path? Part of the reason is because the thirty-eight four-star generals on active duty in the armed forces tend to view contemporary conflict through the wrong lens, the distorting lens of World War II and the Cold War. After all, nuclear weapons may have eliminated total war, but war below the nuclear threshold persists.

Armed conflict for regional power and influence are inevitable in many parts of the world, not just in the South China Sea. Such conflicts inevitably overlap with the competition for energy, water, food, and mineral resources. But these conflicts do not necessarily demand American participation.

If the last twenty-seven years have taught the American people anything, conflict anywhere in the world is by no means a threat to peace everywhere, least of all to the United States. Peace is divisible; conflicts regardless of their causes are overwhelmingly local or regional, not global in significance. This is why it so important for American political and military leaders to first, formulate strategic aims that truly justify military action, before American blood and treasure are put at risk.

These points explain why the military inertia in strategic thinking that tries to intimidate China on China’s doorstep is worse than foolish. It’s downright dangerous when senior military leaders erroneously conclude that US military control of the South China Sea, roughly eight thousand miles from US shores, is a vital strategic interest of the United States, but securing America’s southern border is not.

The good news is the president can fix this problem because it’s a cultural and intellectual problem—not a fiscal one. Fixing it means reaching down and appointing new senior civilian and military leaders to the Defense Department who are not hostage to the policies of the past.

Retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, US Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a has a doctorate and he is the author of five books. His latest, Margin of Victory , is available from Naval Institute Press.

Reprinted with author's permission from National Interest.

Mr. President, Leave Syria

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No one knows precisely what happened inside the White House that resulted in President Trump’s sudden about-face on Syria. One day he was planning to extricate American ground troops from Syria; then he wasn’t. Regardless, whoever is urging the president to leave a small contingent of 2,000 lightly armed soldiers and Marines in a remote corner of Syria is doing the president and the nation a grave disservice. 

President Ronald Reagan committed 2,400 Marines to Beirut, Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping mission on the advice of his Secretary of State George Schultz. Then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed the mission as open-ended and with no reasonable chance of success, but Reagan followed Schultz’s recommendation. 

As Weinberger warned, the small US military presence had no strategic impact on the escalating violence in Beirut. The Marines operated under ludicrous rules of engagement that prohibited them from firing their weapons unless they were taken under direct fire and, even then, only with a weapon similar to the one used against them. In short order, the escalating violence confined the lightly equipped Marine infantrymen to their compound.

At 6:20 a.m. on October 23, 1983 the mission changed. A suicide bomber drove a truck into the Marine compound and detonated a bomb producing a blast equal to 12,000 pounds of dynamite. The blast destroyed the building and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers.

Weinberger was furious and frustrated. When Reagan called him to the White House, Weinberger summed up the position of the Marines to the president in very succinct terms: “They’re in a position of extraordinary danger. They have no mission. They have no capability of carrying out a mission, and they’re terribly vulnerable.” 

According to Weinberger, President Reagan said, “Yes, Cap. You were right. I was wrong. Now, we’ve got to get our men out of there.” Despite the usual push back with bluster and bravado—“Americans don’t cut and run,” and “Marines never quit”—from the usual suspects inside the Beltway who’ve never pulled a trigger in battle in their lives, Reagan withdrew the Marines. 

As the White House wrestles with the Washington Swamp — a growing group of interventionists inside and outside of the White House—President Trump should consider adopting one of two courses of action in Syria.

1) Transform the weak US military presence in Syria into a more capable and survivable force of at least 5,000 US troops including tanks, tracked armored fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery and air defense forces. 

2) Withdraw the force of 2,000-plus light troops currently on the ground in Syria. 

Keep in mind, that option one is — at best — a stop-gap measure to protect American lives and nothing more. Short of a massive American military intervention on the scale of Desert Storm, Washington’s actions will make no impact on Syria. Nothing Washington does in Syria will change the reality that Israel is involved in a permanent state-of-undeclared-war with Iran, Iran’s proxies and, increasingly, Islamist Turkey. Moscow comprehends this reality and has acknowledged Israel’s National Security Interests. As a result, Moscow has both warned off Iran and stood aside while Israel has launched more than 200 strikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the last 18 months.

Moscow’s readiness to act decisively against Islamists of all strikes is a good thing, but given Turkey’s defection to the anti-Western/anti-Israeli camp, there will always be a stray Sunni Islamist element present in the region to justify prolonging American military engagement. But staying in the region to chase the residue of ISIS and al Qaeda is pointless. Turkey and the regional Arab states will allow the few surviving Islamist fighters to escape and disperse rather than let them be destroyed.

President Trump should follow his gut instinct and disengage American forces from Syria. President Putin promised to end the Syrian Civil War with the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria.” President Trump should let him keep his promise. 

As President Reagan discovered the hard way in 1983, open-ended peacekeeping or peace enforcement missions are halfway houses that appeal to dithering politicians, but such policies do not ignite passion or commitment among Americans. American voters dislike imprecise and indefinite policies that put American lives at risk casually. According to the latest polls, 62 percent of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria.

After 1991, Washington was stupid and embraced the Neocons’ unipolar moment. As President Trump routinely reminds his supporters, the outcome was a series of strategic disasters for the American people. If the president’s four star generals have not figured it out, at least the American people have concluded that using American military power to breathe new life into the comatose body of the perpetually failed states that litter the Eastern hemisphere is a huge waste of time. 

Option two is the right course of action. It’s the option President Trump’s base voted for in 2016. 

Extricating American soldiers and Marines from volatile quagmires like Syria (and Afghanistan) will only intensify the president’s popular appeal in the midterms when his base must mobilize and vote to support for the America First agenda in Congress. 

Doug Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran, PhD and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory from Naval Institute Press, 2016. 

Reprinted with author's permission from Breaking Defense.