Syria and the Danger of Strategy Creep
After horrifying massacres and a lengthy uprising, Syria is on the U.S. policy radar as never before. The Washington Post sees a “threat to vital U.S. interests” that is likely to grow, and Senator John McCain expects a debate on whether Washington’s inaction calls into question “our commitment to the fundamental rights.” For those advocating that we “do something,” one of the main military options being bandied about at this point is a seemingly low-risk and inexpensive endeavor: “Arm the rebels.”
It is worth pausing over the subconscious images implied by that phrase: truckloads of arms being ferried to grateful and well-organized rebel units, arriving at convenient and safe central-distribution centers. But in reality, such a policy would take months to become effective. There are great difficulties inherent in supplying a disunified movement. In the end, such an effort most likely only would contribute to the brewing civil war in Syria rather than generating a decisive outcome. While this approach would minimize risk to U.S. service personnel, it embraces a risk of a different sort—strategy creep.
The term “mission creep” is a familiar one. During the U.S. involvement in Somalia in the early 1990s, Washington was largely successful in delivering relief supplies to the population. But these successes led to no durable improvement, since Somalia’s warring factions continued to fuel the nation’s instability.
The United States eventually opted to seek a decisive result by expanding the military’s mission to include efforts to detain individuals contributing to the country’s civil conflict. This creeping expansion of the mission eventually led to the “Blackhawk Down” incident of October 1993 and the death of seventeen U.S. personnel. Mission creep failed to improve Somalia’s situation and instead led to an American withdrawal.