In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
The news from the war zone was always the same: A diverse group of rebels and factions were attempting to subvert the dictatorial regime that had no legitimacy holding power. The United States, in a half-hearted attempt at regime change, lightly intervened with a modicum amount of force and assistance. The various groups seesawed back and forth in success and failure and continued to attack each other as much as the regime. Further, there were even elements in the American government that did not want to see the regime ended. It all finally collapsed when the president pulled the plug, and the resistance crumbled.
Many readers may rightly assume that this is a description of the American involvement with the Syrian resistance to the Assad regime. However, it is also a description of the American intervention against the Bolshevik regime in what would become the Soviet Union.
In July of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson authorized sending 5,000 American troops to Russia. This was ostensibly done to protect allied war supplies and help save the “lost Czech legion.” Once the Russian front collapsed, and the Czechs were saved, the intervention continued and morphed into a half-hearted attempt to support White (Tsarist) factions against the Bolsheviks. This American North Russian Expeditionary Force, sometimes dubbed the Polar Bear expedition, was full of soldiers from northern states such as Wisconsin.
The mission suffered from a lack of purpose and the inability of the Wilson administration to create a grand strategy that included Russia and the rise of the Bolsheviks. There were some allied leaders, such as Winston Churchill, who wanted to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in in its cradle,” while others merely wanted to protect supply routes. There were debates on whether to support the Tsarist-White forces and if so, which general should receive such backing.
Added to this was the inability for the allies to articulate a purpose to their own electorates and that same electorate’s weariness with war. Despite being anti-Bolshevik, Wilson refused to use his own international liberal (Wilsonian) ideology to call for the crusade that he believed in. America was afraid of involving the very values that enabled Wilson to go to war in the first place.
If this all seems eerily familiar to the situation in Syria, it should, as many of the same components are present there: President Barack Obama’s less than half-hearted attempt to support the Syrian National Front and Free Syrian Army, the on-again-off again support for the Kurds and the ambivalence towards the illegitimate Assad regime. It is almost comical that the entire situation was changed for the worse by the intervention by, of all nations, Russia.
In an act that we continue to live with today, the Obama administration’s failed support of the Free Syrian Army overtly allowed them to be overshadowed by Islamic extremist groups. The United States did not support the anti-Assad rebels until two years after the initial uprisings. Finally, in 2013, there was a pledge of $1 billion to support the anti-Assad efforts. This lackluster program never resulted in great victories and was canceled outright last month. Surrounding the entire issue comes the only aspect of this conflict that everyone agrees to, the destruction of the Islamic State group.
However, the Islamic State group rises out of the power vacuum that America created, and was allowed to flourish due to the inability of the Obama administration to have a coherent Syrian strategy. As the anti-Islamic State coalition gains greater victories, the omnipresent question looms: What happens when the group is no longer a territorial threat? We coordinated with the anti-Assad rebels when they crossed paths with fighting the Islamic State group, but once that is off the table, the Assad regime remains.
Just as the Wilson administration never formulated a clear Russian policy, which resulted in creating the ideal conditions for a Soviet victory, culminating in the worst genocide in human history under the communists, so has the inability to create a Syria policy caused great pain to the United States, her allies and the Syrian people. The roots of the problem are not in the tactic of terrorism or the economic viability of the region. The root of the problem in Russia was the Bolshevik regime and communist ideology and the root of the problem in Syria is the Assad regime and Baathist ideology.
The United States can ill afford a reputation of creating half measures that lead to failure, or for failing to think long term instead of being blinded by the immediate crisis. If the United States does not overtly change the situation in Syria, the only beneficiaries will be the Assad tyranny, the fanatics in Iran and the hyper-realists in the Kremlin. American interests and American values will both be denied.
Too much can always be made of historical parallels, but as much as there is a danger in seeing every foreign policy misadventure as a repeat of the prior, there is an even greater danger in blinding oneself to a pattern of mistakes driven by those who lack political courage to act decisively and in the long term.