Mission Creep: Syrian Style

By Alex Moore / Photo Credit: Lee Chapman

While Donald Trump’s (preposterously impulsive) decision to launch a flurry of cruise missiles targeted at an Assad regime air base dominated media coverage, the ongoing mission creep occurring in Syria over the past couple of weeks has not. Here’s why it should.

First let’s take a step back. What is mission creep? The term is often applied in the field of conflict analysis to denote an authorized mission with supposedly limited scope that ends up drastically broadening and resulting in a much more prolonged security presence than was initially intended. History is ripe with examples. The war in Vietnam is perhaps most notable. Dating back to the Eisenhower administration, the U.S had nearly 1,000 personnel on the ground in what was then South Vietnam. The Kennedy administration drastically expanded upon this contingent, upping the number of U.S personnel to around 16,000. Shortly after Johnson took over, the Gulf of Tonkin incident happened and the rest is history as the U.S sleepwalked into a full-scale ground war in Southeast Asia that would last until the mid-70’s. History furnishes us with multiple other examples, from British mission creep during the Suez Crisis in the 50’s to Bush41’s humanitarian aid mission in Somalia turning hot under the Clinton administration in 1993.

All of these instances are often cited as textbook instances of mission creep for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the intervening outside power will always begin with very narrowly defined interests, such as taking part in a humanitarian mission in Somalia alongside UN troops. However, as more troops are placed in harms way, the more it becomes possible that they will be targeted out of either malicious intent or simply by mistake. This raises the obvious possibility of placing strategists in the position of being forced to respond proportionally to attacks on forces. This of course raises the possibility of further retaliation, and you can see how the spiral starts. Moreover, it is possible that the originally narrowly defined interests are impossible to achieve. It has been argued that the NATO-intervention in Libya in 2011 represents this phenomenon. While the intervention began as a UN-sponsored multi-national “Responsibility 2 Protect” mission to down Qaddafi’s air force in an attempt to prevent catastrophic harm to Libyan civilians, the mission’s objectives eventually expanded to include taking Qaddafi himself out.

All of this is to provide context for what I, and other analysts of conflict studies are afraid we are witnessing in Syria. I emphasize “afraid” because the stakes are far higher in Syria than they were in Somalia, or Libya, for instance. You likely know by now that the Syrian Assad regime is extensively propped up by Russia and Iran, both of whom have gone to extensive links to bolster the Syrian dictator. As such, this creates a crowded battlefield and airspace in Syria that I have written about extensively in the past on this website. As such, the margin for error is minimal. While the U.S-led coalition fighting mainly against the Islamic State features a number of U.S special-forces operatives, there is also the added impetus of providing protection for U.S backed rebels (the SDF Arabs/Kurds and YPG Kurds most extensively) from hostile air support from the regime, Russia, and Iranian drones.

It is within this context that we have witnessed a variety of close calls of outright U.S-Russia or U.S-Iranian confrontation in recent weeks, from an Iranian drone dropping ordnance near U.S troops, to the U.S shooting down a Syrian regime jet after it flew too close to U.S-backed rebels advancing on the Islamic State’s de-factor capitol of Raqqa. Iran and Russia have, and will continue to go to great lengths to defend their murderous Assad proxy. This is the reason why U.S potential for mission creep is so great. One simple mix-up, and an incredibly combustible situation has the potential to explode (particularly when one factors in the Trump/Saudi love fest and the immense regional power struggle between the Saudis and Iran).

While Obama’s Syria policy is widely regarded as a failure, at the very least he didn’t get the U.S dragged into a proxy war with Russia and Iran over a country with strategic significance to U.S allies, but not the U.S itself. Had Obama acted decisively early, it is likely that Russia never would’ve gotten involved in the manner it has, but that’s a drastically different post. Anyways, to wrap this up, I would strongly implore all parties involved to de-escalate tensions before things turn hot between the various players. That way, in the future, we won’t look back on the U.S-led war against the Islamic State as the precursor to mission creep pitting the U.S and the Gulf Monarchies against Iran. I say this, but the onus is mostly on the Assad/Russia/Iran axis to cease provocative behavior against the anti-ISIS coalition.