According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, 28 ongoing world conflicts exist, seven of which posses a “critical impact on U.S. interests.” Among these seven, the civil war in Syria stands out. When people hear of the war, they tend to hear about unspeakable acts of terror, like drone strikes, towns falling under seige, and large-scale civilian deaths, like the recent chemical attack in Ghouta. However, one topic people rarely hear regards when the war will end. This Thursday, March 15 will mark the eight anniversary of the fighting, and no end seems present. But why?
One could chalk it up to Assad releasing jihadists, consequently adding extremism into brewing conflict, or even Russian military intervention. And while these sentiments might not necessarily prove wrong, one factor involved unknowingly prolongs this strife: the U.S. Yes, while good intentions may motivate their involvement, the actions of America have inadvertently worsened the situation.
To understand their role in the deterioration of the Civil War, one must first understand the history of their involvement in this conflict. After seeing the spread of rebels to Syria, as well as the 2012 founding of al-Qaeda subgroup Jabhat al-Nusra, the United States decided to take action, and in April of 2013, the Obama administration covertly started to develop the Syrian Train and Equip Program, a CIA initiative to train Syrian citizens opposed to the current regime. Despite the reported $500 million dollars spent on the program, results underwhelmed military officials, with only fifty Syrians remaining in the program of the reported 6,000 recruits after the end of the first training phase by mid-September of 2015; the project eventually broke short in early October of the same year.
About a year prior to this, the United States began to employ the usage of drones in this war for surveillance purposes, though their military use substantially increased in the last decade. And for the last three years, the U.S. seems frozen in their efforts. Here, the United States comes into play. While American intervention resulted in dozens of breakthroughs, two reasons concerning American activity play crucial roles in the question of why the war seems it will never end.
The first of these reasons concerns the idea that the U.S. seems more focused on the proxy wars rather than the main conflict. By definition, a proxy war “is a conflict instigated by opposing powers who…use[s] third parties to do the fighting for them.” Within the context of the Syrian War, the United States currently fights in two proxy wars: one alongside Russia and the United Arab Emirates for a more secular Syria, and another against Russia, who backs the regime of Assad. And in all fairness, the former war does possess large ramifications on the conflict of Secularism vs. Islam in the Middle East.
However, unlike the Secularists vs. Islamists, America vs. Russia lacks the potential to affect an entire geopolitical region. For one, since neither side actually fights the other, America receives no benefits emerge from fighting Russia. However, while no perks exist, a notable risk exists: the U.S. losing focus of the main conflict.
In early February, dozens of Russian mercenaries died in a battle between the U.S. coalition and Syrian forces backing the Russians, with “one squadron… los[ing] 200 people… right away.” This battles and others like it only serve to complicate the overall war, as time and energy directed towards furthering a somewhat pointless conflict instead could serve to defeat Assad and his forces.
Second, and more importantly, America seems to only be fighting in the war to gain Syrian resources. Political scientist John Mearsheimer, in an essay for the National Interest, argued that by insuring “oil flows freely out of the [Persian] Gulf,” America effectively prevents all other nations from accessing Middle Eastern oil, a trend for which a precedent exists: the 2003 Iraq war, for example.
American companies like Shell, Exxonmobil, and BP currently cash in on the abundance of oil, and even military officials have admitted “the Iraq war is largely about oil.”
Considering the precedent for American desire and current monopoly over oil (as well as considering the 25 thousand daily barrels of oil Syria produced in 2016 alone), it makes sense why the majority of American foreign policy regards the Syrian conflict. And while this may benefit America, the faux altruism by the latter unintentionally hurts Syrian citizens.
Shortly after the war started in 2011, Syrian electric grids ended up in the crosshairs, with the opposition later attacking gas pipes in addition to the grids, cutting innocent people off from running water, lights, and heat. Furthermore, one must also consider potential drawbacks on the United States, who after launching a 59 missile airstrike, faced a considerable spike in global oil prices, which jumped to $55.04 per barrel.
So how can the U.S. learn to better manage the Syrian war? To start, they can try to not repeat past mistakes. The Iraq war, another oil motivated war, received heavy criticism for its poor handling, most notably the stiff costs it took to fight in it and human rights abuses. In the case of the former, America spent $11.5 million dollars since 2014 daily in the war, with no known abuses. Regardless, America must not continue to spend such large sums of money on a conflict that only affects them in one of their innumerable economic sectors.
The U.S. could also learn to focus more on the primary conflict against Assad. Fighting proxy wars not only wastes precious time, money, and troops, but it also distracts people from the more immediate threats, like top commanders and the potential for domestic terrorist threats. As proven by the Shayrat air strike, the U.S. can make incredible leeway when they display both a strong sense of focus and the willpower to move past their own selfish desires to accomplish a task.
Whatever role the U.S. played in prolonging the war, they can, through diverting all of their resources away from Russia towards Assad and looking beyond potential gains and helping those in need, prevent it from going on any longer.