In thinking about our troops in Syria, remember Viet Nam and how quickly 50 can become 500,000

I wonder whether the Obama Administration has been watching too many superhero movies. You know, the kind in which a team of three or four superheroes take on armies of the powerful.

How else can we account for the administration’s assertion that embedding 50 specially trained soldiers into Kurdish and certain Syrian rebel forces will make a difference?

These must be 50 very talented individuals.

Especially when you consider that President Obama has predicted that Russian actions in Syria would lead to a quagmire. Russia now has 4,000 troops in the country, or 8,000 boots on the ground, as military pundits like to write. Before Russia began bombing ISIS, and perhaps rebel, positions a month ago, there were only 2,000 Russian troops on the ground.

What difference does it make? 4,000 or 2,000, with or without the air strikes—that’s nothing compared to 50 red-blooded Americans. We’ll get the job done while avoiding both the quag and the mire.

Obama’s initial announcement said the 50 troops would provide strategic and tactical advice. Now it turns out, that they will also go out on raids. But since they’ll be fighting less than 50% of the time, the mission is classified as “non-combat.” It sounds as if some professor of Newspeak left over from the euphemistically inclined Bush-Cheney Administration thought up that logic. I lost some respect for the President for telling this big white lie.

At least these 50 soldiers don’t have as their goal the one thing that U.S. troops have consistently shown they are able to do: Get the local military anywhere from weeks to months away from being ready to go it alone. Wasn’t that the assessment of the situation for months, and sometimes years at a time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Viet Nam? Turns out that our armed forces never were able to complete that job anywhere.

We’re not on a training mission, and we’re not on a combat mission. What then? Some have characterized what our troops are doing in Syria as offering guidance: Let’s hope, then, that we’re talking about group therapy, because one-on-one sessions can get to be expensive. Or will we get into the heat of battle and our guidance be to show the Kurds/rebels how to fire their shiny new American-made weapons? First we load, then we aim, then we push this button. Gee that was fun, let me show you again.

The sarcasm of these comments is meant to hide a large, gnawing fear that Syria is going to become the next Iraq, Afghanistan or Viet Nam. At this point, it structurally resembles Viet Nam in that we are starting with a small contingent of crack troops whose job is to train and advise the locals. Our troops in Viet Nam ballooned from a few hundred advisors to a half a million soldiers in what those who lived through it probably remember as a blink of the eye—but what was really just a few years. The difference of course is that this time we’re supporting two of three rebel forces and not the official government. That’s Russia’s role in this increasingly bloody farce.

Syria is a mess, and for a change, it’s not entirely America’s fault, as the mess in Iraq is. But like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nothing that we can do to fix the Syrian situation. Four forces are fighting over a territory jerry-rigged between the 20th century’s two world wars and at least two of the forces would be delighted to rule over a part of the whole.  No side has distinguished itself for its humanitarianism or its dedication to free-market democracy.

The only skin we should have in this game are the Syrian people themselves. And there can be little doubt that the Syrian people will suffer from the Administration’s policy of a slow water-torture kind of ratcheting up of our military involvement, and will suffer even more from the Putin and Republican solution of making a major commitment to the fighting.

If we care about the Syrian people, we should withdraw all military aid to all parties involved in the Syrian free-for-all. We should sell no more arms to any of these forces, nor to any other country in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Instead, we should lead a massive relief effort to get humanitarian aid to the refugees and place them in other countries throughout the world. We should be prepared to take a hundred thousand Syrians ourselves.

The war will go on, but wars have a way of ending when resources are depleted, and withdrawing our military support from the region will accelerate that depletion process by years. Our withdrawal from an active role in the Syrian melee will, of course, position Iran and Russia to become the major foreign players in Syria—more of a poisoned pawn than an honor, based on the experience of various powerful nations in Viet Nam, Chechnya, Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

After the smoke clears, we should provide economic but not military aid to the two or three governments that will control parts of the former Syria. That aid should be conditioned on those governments having free elections and refraining from the worst sorts of human rights violations now practiced by Assad and ISIS. We forgave Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for their terrorist pasts and consider the only countries to attack our shores—Great Britain and Japan—as best of friends. I don’t believe it’s inconceivable that we will be doing business with ISIS if and when they mature into a legitimate government.

Or not.

What isn’t conceivable is getting into another war in which American soldiers are lost and tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents are killed, injured or displaced. I fear going from 50 to 5,000 or 500,000 troops on the ground much more than I fear a few beheadings.


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