U.S. Options in Syria Don't Include Ground Troops

Writing in the Washington Post, neo-conservatives Reuel Gerecht and Ray Takeyh wrongheadedly propose to send U.S. ground troops to fight Iran and its proxies in Iran and Syria:

It is way past time for Washington to stoke the volcano under Tehran and to challenge the regime on the limes of its Shiite empire. This will be costly and will entail the use of more American troops in both Syria and Iraq. But if we don’t do this, we will not see an end to the sectarian warfare that nurtures jihadists. We will be counting down the clock on the nuclear accord, waiting for advanced centrifuges to come on line. As with the Soviet Union vs. Ronald Reagan, to confront American resolution, the mullahs will have to pour money into their foreign ventures or suffer humiliating retreat.

They're nuts. The last thing the US should do is commit ground forces.

It isn't Iran that we would be fighting: It's an international mercenary army that already includes thousands of fighters recruited from the three million Hazara Afghans now seeking refuge in Iran, from the persecuted Pakistani Shi'ites who comprise a fifth of that country's huge population, and elsewhere. As I reported recently in Asia Times:

The IRGC’s foreign legions include volunteers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Shi’ites are an oppressed minority often subject to violent repression by the Sunni majority. IRGC-controlled forces include the Fatemiyoun Militia recruited mainly from Shi’ite Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, with reported manpower of perhaps 12,000 to 14,000 fighters, of whom 3,000 to 4,000 are now in Syria. Iranians also command the Zeinabiyoun militia composed of Pakistani Shi’ites, with perhaps 1,500 fighters in Syria.

The manpower pool from which these fighters are drawn is virtually bottomless. The war has already displaced half of Syria's 22 million people, and Iran plans to replace Sunnis with Shi'ite immigrants in order to change the demographic balance. The Sunni side of the conflict has become globalized with fighters from the Russian Caucasus, China's Xinjiang Province, as well as Southeast Asia.

The U.S. State Department last year estimated that 40,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries were in Syria; Russia cited a figure of 30,000. Whatever the number is today, it would not be difficult to add a zero to it.

Russia and China, as I explained in the cited Asia Times essay, blame the U.S. for opening the Pandora's Box of Sunni radicalism by destroying the Iraqi State and supporting majority (that is, Shi'ite) rule in Iraq. Sadly, they are broadly correct to believe so. Thanks to the advice of Gerecht and his co-thinkers at the Weekly Standard and Commentary, the Bush administration pushed Iraq's and Syria's Sunnis into the hands of non-state actors like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

A seventh of Russia's population is Muslim, and 90% of them are Sunnis. China has a restive Muslim population among the Uyghurs in its far West, and all of them are Sunnis. Moscow and Beijing therefore support Shi'ite terrorists as a counterweight to Sunni jihadists. A Eurasian Muslim civil war is unfolding as a result. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum thinks America should let Sunnis and Shi'ites exhaust each other. If it were just Syria, that would make sense, but the Syrian conflict is the nodal point for a much larger and more dangerous conflagration. If the 300 million Muslims of Southeast Asia were to become involved, the consequences would be horrific.

Gerecht and Tayekh want the U.S. to back the anti-regime forces whom Obama left twisting in the wind during the 2009 demonstrations against Iran's rigged elections. That is the right thing to do. The Trump administration should create a special task force for regime change in Iran and recruit PJ Media's Michael Ledeen to run it. Iran is vulnerable to subversion. With 40% youth unemployment and extreme levels of social pathology (the rate of venereal disease infection is twenty times that of the U.S.), Iranians are miserable under the theocratic regime.

But I don't know if that will work: Iran gets all its money from oil, and the mullahs have the oil, the money, and all the guns. If we can't overthrow the Iranian regime, we will have two choices.

The first is to bomb Iran -- destroy nuclear facilities and Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps bases. That risks war with Russia and China. It is an option, but a dangerous one, and not anyone's first choice. We could have done this before Iran became a Russian-Chinese ally.

The second is to cut a deal with Russia and China: We muzzle the Sunni jihadists whom we (or our allies like Saudi Arabia) supported, and Russia and China cut Iran off at the knees. I sketched out such a deal in August 2016. It won't happen easily, or any time soon, because Russia and China are not sufficiently afraid of us to want to come to the table. Russia would demand other concessions (e.g., recognition of its acquisition of territory by force in Ukraine). As the use of poison gas despite past Russian assurances makes clear, one can't trust the Russians unless, of course, they really are scared of us.

So it all comes down to Grand Strategy: Russia and China must be frightened of America's prowess, especially in military technology. A Reagan-style effort to established unquestioned U.S. supremacy in military technology is the Big Stick we require. Tomahawk missiles are not a Big Stick. They speak loudly. Trump was magnificently right to send the signal to Moscow and Beijing, especially (as Secretary Tillerson said) in the light of Russia's duplicity or incompetence in the matter of Syrian poison gas. Now we need to get to work.

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Update: Christina Lin, a former senior U.S. Defense Department analyst and fellow at SAIS (and frequent Asia Times contributor), told The Diplomat in an interview today:

As a recent Israeli intelligence report documented, there are thousands of Chinese Uyghurs fighting in the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS in Syria, namely in the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) based in Idlib -- an al-Qaeda stronghold. The August 30, 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, planned by TIP in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, signals increasing threats to Chinese citizens and interests overseas if Syria becomes a terrorist safe haven.

Because of “inter-mingling” with Ahrar al Sham and other so called “moderate” jihadists, TIP and Nusra enjoy U.S. and its allies’ protection even though they are designated as terrorist organizations. The have procured advanced Western weapons such as U.S.-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles, Grad missiles, and likely anti-aircraft MANPADS, and drones that they used to record their recent suicide campaigns against the Syrian army. These Western weapons enhance their war fighting capabilities to launch future attacks on China and Chinese interests, so Beijing will likely step up its military support to the Syrian army. Chinese military advisers are already on the ground in Syria, according to media reports.