For Obama’s War Non Policy, it’s Go Big or Go Home

A year ago I wrote about President Obama’s low energy lack of engagement with trying to save Iraq and defeat ISIS. I had offered some suggestions on how Obama could have butched up his war plans to actually be effective.  Of course I didn’t really expect Obama to take any such advice, whether from me or the countless military advisors at the Pentagon.  Ultimately, he just wasn’t that interested and prefers to wait out the clock until he’s out of office and then complain about whatever the new guy (or gal) decides to do.  Of course in the past year, a couple of things have happened:

Everything has gotten worse.  The Islamic State hasn’t been stopped, and it might be generous to say that they’ve been slowed down.

The Islamic State is now a real state. They are now acting in their territory just like any other government, settling disputes and providing government services.  No one recognizes their government as a legitimate government, but it’s there anyway.

The amount of airpower we’ve been willing to put into the war effort has been kept at a low enough level to not make much difference.

The Obama Administration, CENTCOM, or someone in it (*cough* James Clapper* cough*) is politicizing intelligence to make sure only happy talk is allowed to be disseminated.

Obama’s plan to train a “moderate” Syrian rebel force is a complete failure. We spent $500 million to field 4 or 5 rebels in country.

In the meantime, a massive refugee crisis has broken out as a result of the war, consisting of as many as 9 million Syrians.

The Russians are moving in, setting up operations inside Syria to shore up their ally, President Assad.

So it’s pretty clear that Obama’s no-effort strategy is an abject failure.  And it also means that anything I thought could have been done a year ago has washed away.  The situation is far direr today than it was a year ago and will probably get worse before it gets better, which may not be in the foreseeable future.

So tossing my old plans in the garbage, it’s obvious that we need a new one, but what?  The option I outlined last year included:

  1. Training the remaining semi friendly anti ISIS forces, primarily the Kurds but also some Iraqi regular army units.
  2. Fortify and blockade the Syrian-Iraqi border to keep ISIS from resupplying and reinforcing its holdings on the Iraq side, allowing the Iraqi’s to take back their own territory and force Assad to engage ISIS instead of him using them as a pawn to drag us into saving his bacon.

All of that is meaningless now.  The reality is, whether we accept the existence of the Islamic State or not, is that there is a Sunni Arab state operating in majority Sunni Arab territories taken from both Iraq and Syria, and it’s likely to remain in some form or another.

But this is a good news / bad news situation.  Given where we are now, I thought I had come up with an original, not yet discussed solution to the Syrian issue.  Unfortunately, in researching this, I discovered that The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon had already beaten me to it:

“…[A] final option is partition or confederation. Partition is certainly easier said than done — whether the goal is to create new countries or autonomous zones held together through some weak central government. But if the parties do recognize that they need to work together and there is some natural way to divide up land that is seen as both fair and militarily enforceable, partition can work. Conflicts between Bosnia and Kosovo, between Eritrea and Ethiopia and between the two Sudans have all ended this way — though often only after a great deal of blood has been spilled, and often only with the help of international peacekeepers along the various lines of separation.”

Given the ethnic/religious map of Syria, it just makes sense that we should stop trying to fit square ethnic groups into the round holes of artificial states that would never have existed if not for the European map making that lead to the Sykes Picot Agreement, which divided up the Middle East by the British and French after World War I. O’Hanlon seems to envision some sort of federation or confederation, but I think mini states would work better.  Let Assad keep the Alawites, and let the Christians, Druze and Kurds go their separate ways.

The Sunni Arab area needs to be let go.  It mostly belongs to the IS anyway.  The only part of that area that needs to be separated is a Sunni enclave separate from the IS for refugees; and of course a possible staging area for future operations against ISIS.

Of course there is more than one fly in that ointment.  The first one is Putin.  He’s moved into Syria in a big way and appears ready to take the military offensive against ISIS to save his client state.  Before the Russians moved in to Syria, the US had the option of operating more or less without taking the Russians into consideration.  But the US policy of keeping the Russians out of the Middle East, which had lasted for decades, has collapsed due to the Obama administration’s inattention.  If anyone has taken Rahm Emmanuel’s advice of never letting a crisis go to waste, it’s been Putin. So anything having to do with Syria now has to go through the actual military power that is on the ground there: Russia.

The other fly in the ointment is of course the Obama administration.  They are the architects of this catastrophe, due to their inexperience and purposeful ideological blindness.  They wanted hands off the Middle Eastern disasters and this is what it looks like; hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

So for that reason I rate the possibility of actually accomplishing anything as quite low.  Going big would require a major military commitment.  But on the plus side the only areas you would want to take are those areas that truly want be liberated from ISIS, whether they’re Christian, Druze, or Kurds.  Although I’m not sure I would even support that kind of military commitment, I recognize that if you really want to do something useful, you have to do it on that scale.  But  I don’t think the Obama administration has even the appetite for diplomatic action.  Far more likely than going big is simply going home. At least Obama has given a good example of what happens when America Shrugs: chaos.

For those who think the idea of partitioning Syria is unrealistic, there is precedent.  That was how the Yugoslavian civil war was eventually resolved, by; partitioning the area into several states.  The Middle East is revolting against their old, artificially created borders anyway.  That can either be guided to a more peaceful resolution or it can be ignored and resisted with all of the accompanying death and international chaos that goes with it.  But one way or the other, it’s happening.

Update: Since I wrote the above, Putin has changed the game once again. At Monday’s speech at the UN he said that he wants to put together an international anti terrorist coalition to go after the Islamic State. Russia will introduce a UN resolution to that effect, and who can blame them?  International politics and leadership abhors a vacuum, and if the United States is no longer providing leadership, apparently Russia will; on their terms.

When you can’t see PTSD

Before I retired from the Army Reserves, my last unit was a small detachment where we worked special projects.  So drill for us was spent behind a computer, researching and working on various work products. Although I was a newly promoted Sergeant First Class, I was selected as detachment NCO.  I wasn’t the senior NCO in the unit however. There was another SFC who had date of rank on me by several years.  However when he was asked to be the Detachment NCO, he turned it down flat.  Generally, that just isn’t done.  The senior person is supposed to be preparing, and willing to take over when personnel leave, but he was having none of it.  So when I was asked to assume those responsibilities (I accepted of course-although it was less of an ask and more a matter of being told) it wasn’t because I was just so great that the unit leadership thought I was a perfect choice, it was because the person who should have done it just flatly refused.

But being asked to take over as senior Non Commissioned Officer for the detachment was merely a formality.  The truth is he was supposed to take the job, and it was confounding to the unit leadership that he out and out refused.  I didn’t get it either, and I had asked him.  He just waved me off on that one; he didn’t seem to have a clear reason or couldn’t seem to articulate it. This wasn’t the first time that Sergeant Ed (that’s what I’ll call him) had troubles with the unit leadership.  Months prior he had gotten in a shouting match with a Major over…nothing.  He had just lost his temper for no reason.

That should have been a clue for me, but I totally missed it.

Sergeant Ed had been deployed to Iraq and had been back for about two years at that point.  He didn’t enjoy his deployment.  Not being sarcastic here but some guys do.  They like the adventure, the camaraderie, and the extra combat pay.  And the younger you are, the less cognizant of danger you are.  That’s why young guys traditionally make the best soldiers.  Sergeant Ed wasn’t a young guy when he was deployed though.  He was in his fifties; an unimaginably ancient age to be deployed in a combat zone for the active services, but strictly routine for Guard and Reserve.

What’s worse, he was deployed in an entirely different Military Occupational Specialty than the one he had been working in for the past couple years.  That wasn’t as uncommon as it should have been.  Something similar happened to me.  I was deployed in my original MOS, not the one I had been working in the previous decade.  At least in my case it was a field that was fairly close to the one I had been working in, so the transition for me wasn’t as extreme.

So he was supposed to be a supervisor (he had the rank) and be an expert in, a field he hadn’t worked in about 15 years.  In a combat zone, with people he hadn’t worked with before.

No pressure.

None the less, that was all in the past, and I didn’t connect it with his performance in the unit.  Until one day…

We were at work one day, each at our workstations working on our various aspects of our project, when he turned to me and asked what I thought was a really off the wall question.

“Say when you’re online, do you ever look at…”

Now here I was preparing myself for some description of some off the wall aspect of pornography.  I steeled myself for the description of some fetish that I really didn’t want to hear about.

“…car crash scenes?”

“Huh?  No.  What?”

That threw me.  I have seen car crash photos online.  Years ago there was a troll on a forum I used to go to that would either post or misidentify links to auto accidents.  But I sure wouldn’t go searching for them.  Who would?

He then proceeded to tell me how he would wake up in the middle of the night and search for gruesome car crashes online.  He couldn’t explain exactly why he did it, but he described it as a compulsion, a compulsion that had its roots in his deployment to Iraq.

And that’s when the story came out.

He had gone on sick call; something minor, and while sitting in the waiting room there was a large explosion outside on the street.  An bomb had gone off, killing several people.  That part sounds like just a news report, but he was in the waiting room of that medical detachment when the stretchers came into the facility.  These were stretchers full of body parts; arms, legs…other parts.  All the while he was helpless to do anything.

That morning became the defining moment of his deployment.  It was the trigger to his post traumatic stress disorder, and I had worked with the guy for two years and didn’t have a clue.

Oh I had sat through the Army briefings on PTSD, and thought I would be able to detect the symptoms in a fellow soldier, but I didn’t.  Instead, I judged him, just like the rest of my detachment command judged him.  We didn’t have a clue even though the clues in his behavior were sprinkled all around us.

But I think what really threw me was his age.  I just didn’t expect an adult in his fifties to be traumatized that way.  For some reason, it made more sense to me that a guy in his twenties would be more affected.  But when you are in your fifties?  It was nonsensical prejudice and maybe it’s one that isn’t emphasized enough.  But it was a difficult lesson to learn.

At least he was taken care of properly by the VA.  Although there are a million and one terrible VA stories, there are even more that were successful.  In this case, he got the help he needed. But my regret, is that I didn’t support him in the way that he needed, when he really needed it.