Military forces of the United States are now on the ground in Syria, a nation gripped in civil war in one of the most dangerous and violent regions in the world. Four-hundred U.S. Marines and Army Rangers have just been dispatched to the city of Raqqa in Syria to join the battle with the Islamic State.
These new American military personnel join approximately 500 of our Special Operations Forces already in Syria. However, the new troops are profiled for combat, while our forces already there are described as support advisers, helpful in particular in gathering vital intelligence information.
This evolving, little-reported development has been described as broadly a continuation of the approach of the Obama administration. President Barack Obama did approve the use of a small number of Apache attack helicopters in Syria. However, the addition of ground combat troops is a change in the character as well as degree of the American military commitment in this devastated, war afflicted nation.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was not reassuring in a canned reply to an aggressive reporter asking about this new deployment. He appeared to brush off any danger of being drawn into combat with the involved — and heavily armed — nations in this region. His “script” (his word) was evasive.
In reality, Russia is increasingly influential in the Mideast, especially in Syria. The two nations have been close allies for decades, dating back to the rule of President Hafez al-Assad, father of current President Bashar al-Assad.
American leaders, when successful in the past, have demonstrated exceptional determined skill, while avoiding ground force commitments except in the Persian Gulf War. That involved a broad coalition.
President Richard Nixon was particularly successful. The 1972 SALT I strategic arms treaties with the Soviet Union and the opening to China were achieved by disciplined negotiation. The 1973 Yom Kippur War between Arab states and Israel was ended through U.S. leadership. First, President Nixon aggressively pursued getting essential aid to Israel. Simultaneously, Israel was restrained regarding encircled Egyptian forces.
Second, visible actions were taken to demonstrate U.S. military resolve: B-52 bombers were moved from Guam to the U.S., the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was placed on alert.
Third, the U.S. ultimately did not pursue a proposed joint “condominium” with the Soviet Union. Interests were too divergent on both sides. This bears directly on Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s recent public relations offensive for broad Russia-U.S. collaboration regarding Syria.
Likewise, U.S. aid was involved in President Jimmy Carter’s historic achievement of the difficult Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1978. His extraordinary dedicated work was crucial.
More recently, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker achieved important agreement on a Palestinian authority. Economic leverage was a factor in these strategic successes, and in others during World War II as well as the Cold War.
For all the alarm about Mideast developments, the U.S. has major strategic assets — oil and natural gas. Fracking, available since the 1940s, is now commercially viable. During 2011, the U.S. became a net exporter of petroleum products, reversing a half century of growing oil dependence. The revolution in American production has powerful international implications.
Presidential leadership is essential. Beyond White House bombast, evidence increases departments are making policy. Regarding the military, that is disturbing — civilian authority and control is vital to our nation.
Regarding oil, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s background as head of Exxon Mobil may prove advantageous.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.