But if this story has crept up on you and left you confused as to what U.S. policy should be, let me try to untangle it for you.
The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don’t want to “own” this war. This is the ultimate rent-a-war. Each party wants to maximize its interests and minimize the influence of its rivals by putting as few of its own soldiers at risk and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.
They’ve all learned — Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan — that their publics will not tolerate large numbers of body bags fighting any ground war in the Middle East.
Vladimir Putin wants to be able to tell Russians that “Russia is back” as a superpower and that he’s the kingmaker in Syria — but he isn’t putting any Russian soldiers at risk. Instead, Putin is using Iran to provide ground forces and enlisting contractors, like those Cossacks from a private Russian company named Wagner, to fight and die — as dozens did the other day in a U.S. airstrike — on the ground.
Iran, which just witnessed an uprising by its own people, demanding that Tehran spend its money at home, not in Syria, is subcontracting the ground war that Russia subcontracted to Iran to Iran’s proxies — Hezbollah and various Shiite mercenaries from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This way Iran can control Damascus and use Syria as a forward base to put pressure on Israel but pay “wholesale,” not “retail.”
U.S. Special Forces are arming and advising Kurdish fighters from northern Syria to carry out the ground war against ISIS. Turkey is using Sunni rebels to fight the same Kurds. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan all use various Sunni rebels to fight the pro-Iranian, pro-Shiite regime forces, and Israel is using the long arm of its air force.
In 2003 I wrote a column in the run-up to the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, which I supported, in which I warned: “The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq.”
So in Syria today, the abiding rule is, “You own it, you fix it.” And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria — a gargantuan project — they all want to just rent their influence there.
There is something very 21st century about this war.
But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources — or willingness to compromise — to stabilize Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to invest enough power and resources to stabilize it from the top down.
The “good news,” sort of, is that because everyone is so “loss averse” in Syria, it’s less likely that any party will get too reckless. The Iranians and Hezbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hezbollah neighborhood in Lebanon and hit Iran’s homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.
The Turks don’t want a war with America. America doesn’t want a war with Russia, and the Russians just want to siphon off as much oil as they can from Syria, and use it as a base and an ego booster, without clashing with anyone — because they are much weaker than they look.
Maybe, eventually, the players will get tired and forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war. Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.
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Syria: You Own It, You Fix It, So Just Rent It:title of the post
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