SSU Forum with Professor Stephen Biddle

Date: Monday, October 17 2016, 10:30-12:00
Venue: Conference Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject: Strategy and Policy for the wars in Iraq and Syria
Lecture: Professor Stephen Biddle, George Washington University
Language: English
Hosted by: Security Studies Unit, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, the University of Tokyo

The Security Studies Unit was delighted to host Stephen Biddle, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University, who delivered a talk about “Strategy and Policy for the wars in Iraq and Syria”.
The session was chair by Chiyuki Aoi, Professor of International Relations at the Graduate School of Public Policy of the University of Tokyo. Professor Aoi introduced the speaker as one of the most outstanding expert in US military expert on insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Professor Biddle opened his talk by reminding the audience that what he had to say about Iraq and Syria could also be easily applied to other crisis areas in the world, such as Libya, or Somalia, Afghanistan or Ukraine. Indeed the general strategic features of those crises point to the same factors, primarily the lack of institutionalised governance structures and their interconnections with threats to international security and specifically to US international interests.

In general, it can be said that there are not many ways to deal with the situations of Iraq or Syria, but only three basic options. The first one is to overspend, by sending in very large amounts of troops and resources. This strategy may succeed, but this strategy can be extremely costly, and it is questionable to what extent a political consensus can be built and maintained domestically (in the US for instance) to back such policies and strategy: the cost of success may be higher than what many are willing to pay. Historically however the large scale US commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan ended in failure.
The opposite option is to completely disengage from that crisis area. The cost is (superficially) very low, but in reality, by disengaging, real interests of the US will be sacrificed, and that will come in the end with political costs in the long term, depending on various dynamics.
The third option is the middle-range kind of engagement, where resources are committed but in a limited amount. The problem with this option is that it will eventually fail like the first one (Professor Biddle remarked however that this is will be most probably the strategy adopted by the next US administration). Indeed it appears clear that pretty much any policy option in the area is bound to fail, and it is consequently better to fail with a limited deployment of resources.

Why do these policies fail? The US is increasingly using local allies to do the hard job of controlling the territory and carrying out anti-insurgency operations. This has happened in the past under the assumption of an alignment between US interests and the interests of local allies, but in reality this is actually not the case. Indeed the US is concentrated mostly on external threats, while local elites are chiefly preoccupied with internal threats to their own power position. And the more the US relies on local allies, the more it will be exposed to political divergences with them.
Professor Biddle recalled that, as Clausewitz argued, war is just the continuation of political struggle with other means, and for political goals, so the military cannot achieve conclusive political results by itself, it needs the constantly monitor and consider the political situation, and how military actions fit in the political landscape. Otherwise, the military effectiveness can be severely affected.

Contexts like those of Iraq and Syria are characterised by extremely weak institutionalisation, aggravated by an unbalanced distribution of resources in relation to the relevance of the single political group. Local elites struggle for the distribution of resources and actively fight each other. Particularly when it comes to the control of the army or the police, key people in power will rely on cronyism and corruption in order to maintain loyalty of those institutions, even at the expenses of efficiency, with consequences for the whole of the US strategy in that country or region. Not only corruption and cronyism harm effectiveness, but sap the morale of the troops as well. As a result, most of the aid provided by the US is being wasted and does not achieve the political goals for which the entire campaign was envisaged in the first place. This is a structural problem in societies with weak institutionalisation.

The situation in Syria is very concerning, but the US has never escalated its intervention in terms of resource commitment on the basis of humanitarian reasons alone. However, the US is concerned about the possibility that fighting and instability may spread to other areas, particularly oil-producing countries in the Gulf. But in order to stabilise Syria, Washington should deploy 300,000 to 400,000 troops, and no politician is willing to do it. The next administration will most likely go for the middle-range solution of deploying some more soldiers than the 5,000 instructors already present in Iraq/Syria, but nobody should expect any stabilisation or solution.
Professor Biddle concluded his intervention by stating that most probably the Syrian civil war will end in a few years because of the simple exhaustion of economic resources, not by “capacity building” of US allies, as this does no contribute to the creation of functioning institutions.