Best Defense

Containing the Middle Eastern conflict: The danger of long-term mutation

When it comes to conflict in the Middle East, there's a high risk of mutations changing their course.

Mideast Syria Rebel Attrition
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. Moderate Syrian rebels are buckling under the onslaught of the radical al-Qaida breakaway group that has swept over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Some rebels are giving up the fight, crippled by lack of weapons and frustrated with the power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Other, more hard-line Syrian fighters are bending to the winds and joining the radicals. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

By Gary Anderson

Best Defense office of Westphalian affairs

The Obama administration has settled on a near tem containment strategy for the self-styled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In the long term, it hopes to create proxies that will eventually destroy the “Caliphate” that has taken over of northern Syria and Iraq by waging a long term war of attrition against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his minions and the Assad regime in Syria. The national leadership has stated that it is deliberately embarking on a long war of attrition. From a purely intellectual standpoint, that may seem like a rational approach.

There is one major danger here: the longer wars last, the more they tend to mutate in ways that their planners could not foresee.

The Thirty Years war is an example that seems relevant because it was largely a confused religious conflict as is the current crisis in the Middle East. It began as an attempt by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire to stop the spread of Protestantism into southern Germany. Like the current conflict, it featured non-state actors as well as established monarchies. By the time it ended, much of central Europe had been depopulated, Catholic France was on the Protestant side, and tiny Sweden was a European superpower.

The Peace of Westphalia was a series of treaties that ended the war and created the nation-state system that lasted until the Cold War ended. That system was designed to ensure such a holocaust did not happen again; when the Iron Curtain came down, the system broke down and non-state actors are now wild cards again. This war is ripe for the kind of mutations that spun the Thirty Years War out of control.

The first potential for mutation is in the area of recruiting and training proxies. We Americans have a mixed record in this area. We were successful in supporting an anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan, but that eventually mutated into al Qaeda and the Taliban. We didn’t understand what we were dealing with, and created a couple of monsters; that is real mutation. Our adventures in Nicaragua supported the pro­-American Contras and resulted in a peace where the anti-American Sandinistas eventually won control democratically and are now courting the Russians openly. Using proxies means that control is lost. If the proxy goes bad, unintended consequences such as the mutation of the conflict follow.

A second problem is our vacillation regarding the Assad regime in Syria. We want to destroy the Islamic State, but we also want to topple Assad with some of the afore-mentioned proxy forces. If we are bad at managing proxies, we are terrible at regime change. We have an almost one-hundred percent record of failure in organizing such things going back to the fifties. Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, and Libya all eventually ended up causing worse problems through the coups and revolutions that replaced the troublesome regimes than the regimes originally posed.  What could possibly go wrong here?

Another gene that may cause mutation is Iran. Iran was the big winner in our last Iraqi adventure. Without losing a single combatant, Iran got a friendly fellow Shiite government out of what was formerly its greatest enemy. In this conflict, it is helping to prop up both the current Iraqi and Syrian regimes. It is also making up much of the money it is losing to western sanctions by dumping its products on the Iraqi market, thus putting many Iraqi farmers and businessmen, Shiite and Sunni alike, out of business. Even if the Islamic State is defeated, our greatest regional problem will emerge even stronger at our expense.

The final wild card is American public opinion. Although there is current anger about Islamic State atrocities, the American people are results oriented. They instinctively avoid long term, open ended conflicts that have no clear end states. If bombs are still dropping on an unbowed Islamic State with no decisive effect by the next election, there will very likely be hell to pay at the polls.

When the effects of these four variables are combined, the whole impact is very likely to be greater than the sum of its parts there is a nine in ten chance that the strategy will go off course, perhaps in several different directions. The ideal hoped for outcome would be stable and democratic governments in Syria and Iraq that do not include the Baathists or the Islamists. With the likelihood of mutation of the conflict at ninety percent or more, the chances of a happy ending are virtually nil.

Otto Von Bismarck, Germany’s Iron Chancellor, was a master at breaking his wars down into bite-size portions and insulating them against the factors that could cause those wars to mutate. Bismarck also had a brilliant military partner in General Von Moltke in ensuring the forceful implementation of the Chancellor’s strategic vision. There are no “Bismarckian” genes in the current national security leadership and American military promotion system isn’t producing any Von Moltkes. The only sure bet, is this conflict will be protracted.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who served as a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AP Photo

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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