A Short History of How the US Went to War in Syria

Here’s what got Secretary of Defense James Mattis all worked up!

Even as what should have been a quick 2001 strike into Afghanistan bogged down into the quagmire of nation building, George W. Bush in 2003 invaded Iraq. The pretenses were all false. Terrorism was the excuse, American control over the region the goal. “Winning” in Iraq was built on an illusion the U.S. could somehow establish a puppet government there incorporating Sunni, Shia, and Kurd power blocs. There was no plan for this and it predictably failed, metastasizing into civil war, eventually drawing in powerful outside forces, most predominantly the Iranians on the Shia side, and al Qaeda on the Sunni side, with the US assuming a defacto role protecting the semiautonomous Kurds.

As the second Bush term gasped to conclusion and America grew weary of the Iraq War, the US quietly abandoned its plans for a tripartite Iraqi state. It allowed Iranian-supported Shias to “win” the 2010 elections at the expense of the Sunni population, and walled off the Kurds, formal status to be sorted out sometime whenever. Under a deal negotiated by Bush, American troops came home under Obama. That action didn’t “lose” Iraq; Iraq was “lost” at a thousand incremental steps between 2003-2010 when the US failed to create a viable government and left everyone to fight it out. The continued presence of American troops post-2010 would not have prevented the violence which followed, anymore than the continued presence of US troops pre-2010 did not prevent the violence and in fact inflamed it.

The Shia government in Iraq, advised, financed, and controlled by newly-empowered Iran (America’s wars had removed Iran’s two biggest enemies, the Taliban on its eastern border and Saddam on the west, freeing up the bulk of Iran’s military and foreign policy resources) wildly overplayed its hand, setting off on a clumsy genocide of the Sunnis. Out of desperation, the remnants of al Qaeda coupled with ultra-violent Sunni nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists (pick one word, but they all describe ISIS) morphed into Islamic State. From a Syrian border American interventionism had turned into a failed state, Islamic State organized itself and began holding ground, quickly rolling over the Kurds in northern Iraq and through sympathetic Sunni lands. When the American-trained (cost: $25 billion) Iraqi national army dropped its weapons and ran in 2014, remaining Shia forces collapsed back toward Baghdad, and it looked like Iraq was about to snap apart.

The US, under Obama, reinserted itself into Iraq, in a devil’s bargain with the most powerful player on the ground other than ISIS, the Iranians. The US paired with Iranian special forces, the US paired with Iranian-led Iraqi troops, and the US paired with Iranian-backed Shia militias/nationalists/protectors/patriots/terrorists. This time there was no grand plan to do any nation building. The plan was to literally kill every Islamic State fighter, and if that meant destroying Sunni cities to save them, so be it. Death was rained in literal Biblical doses. The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis.

Without much discussion, “fighting ISIS” into Syrian territory slipped into another, albeit less enthusiastic, round of regime change, this time aimed at Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s family controlled the country since the 1960s, and was a sort-of American partner here and there, certainly helpful during the early years of the GWOT in torturing folks on America’s behalf. Bashar himself was a goofy looking guy with a sophisticated wife, an optometrist by education, and when he took office after his classic dictator Dr. Evil father’s death, was briefly seen as a “new voice” in the Middle East, a less fashionable version of last year’s Saudi Mohammed bin Salman. Assad was fighting Islamic State, too: they were seeking to seize territory from him, and so the US and Assad were sort of on the same side.

Nonetheless, Obama’s warhawks – the gals, Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton in the lead! – drove policy toward regime change. Assad became an evil dictator who killed his own people. Justification for the US going to war again in the Middle East was thus because a tiny percentage of the deaths were maybe caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones, a “red line.” The world of 2015 however was very different than the one of 2003. The US had been bled out by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and fights picked in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and across Africa. Iran was empowered. Russia, always a friend of Assad’s, was invited in to help rid Syria of chemical weapons by Secretary of State John Kerry and took the opportunity to dramatically grow its military role there.

Saudi money fed the fight, often flowing into ISIS’ coffers because ISIS was fighting Iranian-backed troops whom the Saudi’s opposed. Turkey saw an opportunity in chaos to push back against the Kurds nipping at its southern and eastern borders and basically a small-scale version of WWI unraveled as the United States bombed a bit, stepped back, sent in some special forces, then claimed it had no boots on the ground, and so forth. America’s goals – destroy ISIS, fight Iranian influence, oust Assad – were often at odds with one another and lead to US weapons and money flooding the battlefield. More than one firefight featured American-supplied guns on both sides. More than one American special forces unit found itself playing traffic cop stopping an American “ally” from attacking another American “ally.”

That more or less brings things up to late 2018…

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.

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