The Russian intervention in Syria is straight out of a Cold War nightmare, conceivably even a countdown to Armageddon updated for the 21st century. Such “Mideast contingencies” were constant focal points of war-games that often recurred during my 30-year military career. Those exercises usually took place against the backdrop of the Levant, with U.S. and Soviet forces menacing each other from just over the horizon.
The key difference today is that both countries are pursuing contradictory aims at very close range, the resurgent Russians suddenly confronting a retreating America hamstrung by poor leadership and an utter lack of resolve. The Russians daily demonstrate their contempt for President Barack Obama, who whistled past history’s graveyard while asserting to the United Nations that he “leads the strongest military in the world.” As with all such outrageous and self-serving exaggerations, Donald Trump should demand royalties.
Maybe the United States actually had the world’s strongest military, but that was back before Mr. Obama took office. Shortly thereafter, he methodically stripped whatever combat power still remained after a decade of war, even reducing our hard-pressed Army to pre-World War II levels. Because such weakness is provocative, Vladimir Putin has been on a roll ever since. His intervention in Crimea with those little green men, in reality Spetznaz and airborne troops, rapidly projected Russian military power to create new facts on the ground. With a weak sister still occupying the White House, why on earth should Mr. Putin stop now? Especially when he is so close to restoring Russia’s traditional strategic role in Middle East politics?
At this moment, Russian and American forces are already engaged in combat operations in one of the world’s smallest but most heavily militarized and volatile regions. In Syria, Lebanon and Israel’s Golan Heights, every hilltop and escarpment, each vale and valley, provides a rich history of hidden trip-wires linked to unintended consequences. Because wars with the most uncertain outcomes often begin by accident, these ominous developments already recall the “march of folly” chronicled by Barbara Tuchman in “The Guns of August,” her classic account of World War I’s opening volleys. None of the foreign ministries of the principal combatants really wanted war or could even envision the protracted slaughterhouses that industrial age warfare had become. But its new disciplines demanded the rapid mobilization of reserves, inflexible railway schedules putting a premium on being first to mobilize, to rush manpower to vulnerable frontiers. The rush to mobilize inevitably became a rush to judgment. A war too easy to ignite became impossible to stop, forever changing the tapestry of western civilization.
If you think such a calamity is unlikely in Syria, then perhaps you have been too credulous in believing glib White House pronouncements, too trusting of Pentagon press releases which confidently assert that nothing can go wrong. As an expert in military command and control, I can testify that there are fewer problems more intractable than insuring that one’s own forces do the same thing at the same time and with roughly the same objective in mind. But if you want real trouble, then try adding allies or ‘frienemies.’ When American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks of “de-conflicting” Russian and American combat sorties over Syria, he is being hopeful but not terribly realistic. Especially when different military establishments operate in close proximity, you have entered the realm where the only absolute governing authority is Murphy’s Law. Everything that can go wrong certainly will go wrong and if your attack is going really well, then it’s probably an ambush. (With less than one percent of our population serving in uniform, such harsh operational realities are not well understood among Washington’s policy elites.)
Perhaps those same elites have chosen to forget another reality that makes Middle East conflicts so terribly dangerous: Nuclear weapons. We have them but so do the Russians and the Israelis; maybe Iran does too. With all four nations heavily engaged in an increasingly ambiguous scenario, what happens when one of those famous red lines gets crossed, either through misadventure or even as a deliberate act?
We have even overlooked some highly instructive recent history illuminating the possible pitfalls. In retaliation for the US-led and highly effective strategic bombing campaign during Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel. Even though they were inaccurate and tipped with conventional warheads, Israel desperately wanted to strike Baghdad, dissuaded only because of the dominance of U.S. air power. But had Saddam’s missiles carried nerve agents, no one in strategic circles doubted that the Israeli response would have been nuclear.
Everywhere except in the Obama White House, crossing a red line means unleashing the dogs of war, conventional or, God forbid, maybe even nuclear.
• Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.