Almost as soon as the first cruise missile struck Syrian government forces Thursday evening, a furious debate over the prudence of the action began to build. While the strike was among the first actions taken by President Donald Trump to garner bipartisan support from lawmakers, it generated intense criticism within much of Trump’s base. This includes veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom were drawn to Trump’s campaign message of avoiding entanglement in Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly in regards to Syria.
“I was hoping for non-intervention foreign policy. I didn’t expect him to cave so soon,” said Michael Mazzuto, a Marine Corps Infantry Sergeant who served in Fallujah, Iraq in 2005, and was wounded in Ramadi in 2006, “With Hillary, I think they would have bombed a month sooner, but I don’t think there’s any difference now.”
“If we continue bombing and airstrikes and then pump more troops into the country, that’s a worst-case scenario. I don’t see the end game with that.”
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Mazzuto said many of his fellow veterans are wary and perhaps cynical of the nation’s latest foray into a foreign conflict. It is not, he says, because they are fundamentally against the use of force. Rather, they believe it should be an option reserved for situations where there is a clear and present danger to the United States.
Mazzuto said we aren’t even sure who exactly we are supporting in Syria.
“The environment isn’t black and white. There is never a clean ‘red versus blue’ scenario, ” he said.
Evan McAllister, who served as a Marine scout and sniper in Iraq, and then as a Recon Marine in Sangin, Afghanistan, said U.S. intervention without a clear, strategic end-game can go badly fast.
“The foreign policy I was ultimately hoping for is one that abides by the belief that nation building, mission creep, and counterinsurgency without a clear end-state are horrible courses of action,” McAllister said, “our military simply doesn’t exist for that purpose.”
Following the strike on Assad several high-profile figures, most notably UN Ambassador Nikki Hayley, made clear the administration is now keen to change the Syrian regime. As with previous involvements in messy regional conflicts, “how” isn’t exactly clear, and the conditions of victory have yet to be clearly defined. What is apparent is how quickly even the most basic intervention can sour.
Complicating the U.S. entry into the conflict is that the Syrian government has recently gained the upper hand in its civil war thanks to help from thousands of Russian and Iranian fighters interwoven into its military. Friday’s announcement by Russia that it was “upgrading” Syria’s air-defense system highlights this potential risk as further attacks on Syrian targets pose an increasing risk of killing Russian troops, for which the potential blowback cannot be understated. While this is the most apparent fault line in Syria, another exists between the U.S. and Iran and runs through Iraq.
“Why aren’t we closing the Mosul chapter in Iraq?” asked a Green Beret who recently returned from Iraq and spoke to LifeZette on the condition of anonymity. “Seems simple because we have it surrounded.”
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However, as of August 2016 it was estimated that there were at least 100,000 Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq, and currently much of the manpower in Mosul is made up of Shiite militias loyal to Iran. “Iran has a better presence,” added the Green Beret. A confrontation with Iran in Syria could instantly impact the battle against ISIS in Iraq, where Iranian troops are deeply embedded alongside Iraqi forces around cities like Mosul. This could place Iraqi leaders in a position to pick favorites between the United States and its some 6,000 reported “advisors,”, or Iran. To speculate on how Iraq would react to conflict between Iran and the United States is anyone’s guess, but there is no question that it could derail the larger fight against ISIS and further detract from resolving what many consider the nation’s top security threat.
The potential pitfalls with Russia and Iran stand in stark contrast to what many who have served in the region would prefer.
For those who supported Trump in the 2016 election, the attack on Assad is the opposite of what they sought when they cast their ballots. Rather than eliminating the Assad regime, they view the elimination of ISIS to be of primary importance.
“Syria represents no direct threat to the United States, and hasn’t posed one,” said Mazzuto, the Marine Sergeant, “ousting Assad serves zero national interest.”
MacAllister, the Marine scout and sniper, said Assad’s government is crucial to destroying the real enemy in the region.
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“Syrian forces under Assad should be left alone to finish the encirclement and obliteration of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra [Al Qaeda] with direct support of embedded Russian military power,” he said.
Both Marines agreed the attack on Assad has placed the U.S. in danger of a worst-case scenario: direct conflict with both Russia and Iran, which could rapidly engulf the entire region. “I only care that we don’t commit ground troops to a civil war on a countryside littered with ATGMs, IEDs, death, and amputation,” said MacAllister.
Mazzuto said U.S. leadership has to learn the lessons of the last bloody conflict America waged in the region.
“If we continue bombing and airstrikes and then pump more troops into the country, that’s a worst-case scenario,” he said. “I don’t see the end game with that, and seems really similar to Iraq.”
James R. Webb served as an enlisted Marine Corps infantryman and lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Follow James on Twitter @SGTJRWebb.