Fight vs Flight? Syrian refugees, ourselves, and the battle against ISIS (and Assad?)

One of the panels at the recently completed Aspen Security Forum was entitled “Europe in Crisis” and this naturally involved discussion of the refugee issue.  According to the BBC News over 1.8 million refugees have flowed into Europe, the largest number of which have come from Syria (400,000).  Finding the right way to address the refugee problem is bedeviling governments all over Europe.

My question to the panelists was essentially whether some of the Syrian refugees should be asked to fight for the own freedom (assuming they were adequately organized, trained, and equipped by the West).  In my view, until the cause of the refugee flow is confronted, there will be no solution to this dilemma.

Their answers were unsatisfying.  Although they agreed that finding a solution to the refugee-causing events was essential, all the panelists evaded the question as to whether the refugees should be asked to fight the forces destroying their homeland.

This is especially important and timely because just yesterday op-ed writers in the New York Times called for U.S. forces to attack the Assad regime.   Here’s an issue the op-ed suggests to me: unless healthy, young unmarried refugees are also willing to join the fight, what responsibility – if any – do we have to send our loved ones in while they are rushing out?

Of course, tens of thousands of Syrians have stayed in Syria to battle Assad’s forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and, unfortunately, even each other.  There could be as many as 1000 opposition groups, and about 120,000 of their fighters may have been killed.

But aren’t there still more able-bodied, unaccompanied adults among the refugees who could take up arms as some have advocated?  Last November Time magazine said that about “62% of all migrants that have traveled to Europe this year…are men” – and the bulk of all refugees are “between the age of 18 and 59.”

In addition, Politico reported earlier this year that a “disproportionate number of [the refugees who migrated to Europe] are young, unmarried, unaccompanied males.”  While TV cameras often focus on women with babies in their arms or small children, there still seems to be tens thousands among the refugees who could fight.

One might think this would be a fertile pool of recruits to at least fight ISIS which is inflicting all manner of horrors on fellow Syrians.  That doesn’t seem, however, to be the case.

In 2014 the Pentagon began a program aimed at training Syrians to fight ISIS.  Unfortunately, as reported by Stars and Stripes, it seems that despite spending “$346.8 million in fiscal year 2015,” the then commander of U.S. Central Command told Congress last September that ““only “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters were in Syria.””  More disconcerting news came in June when the Washington Post said a revised program begun in February of this year has “trained fewer than 100 additional fighters, mostly outside of Syria.”

Let’s be clear, the failed program to train Syrians was limited to only those willing to fight ISIS, not Assad.  The New York Times reported last year that:

“There are many, many individuals in Syria who want to fight the regime,” said Christine E. Wormuth, the under secretary of defense for policy. “We were focused on identifying individuals who wanted to fight ISIL.  And that’s a pretty challenging recruiting mission.”

Granted, many Syrians may rather fight Assad, but in light of what ISIS is doing to Syrians, I’m still puzzled that so few will battle the Islamic State.

It’s impossible to know for sure the mindset of the refugees, but here’s something to ponder: last April a Syrian refugee (who said she fled not Assad’s forces but ISIS specifically) wrote an op-ed in the New York Times.  Evidently disgruntled by her treatment in the European Union, the woman (identified only as “Laila”) listed several complaints including this one about a journalist who asked how many guns her group had.  Laila said: “If we knew how to carry weapons or wanted to carry weapons we would not have fled Syria.”  (Italics added.)

Could the problem then be that too many refugees just don’t want “to carry weapons”?  If that’s true, it’s hard for me to imagine a convincing rationale for Americans to use their blood and their treasure to fight Assad as yesterday’s New York Times op-ed writers want.

That new plea for military action against Syria follows a recent “dissent memo” signed by 51 U.S. State Department officials that likewise called on the U.S. to go beyond the current campaign against ISIS and use American forces to attack the Assad regime.  Putting aside the questionable legal rationale for initiating an international armed conflict against Syria, there are serious military issues.  The State Department officials seem to have thought that their proposed military intervention could be done in a risk-free way by suggesting that the force be the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons.”

It is not clear that such a limited use of force could accomplish what the diplomats think it could, especially since the Syrian regime – unlike the nonstate actors the US has fought since 9/11 – has a capable (albeit depleted) air force (not to mention the support of Russia).  More importantly, however, is the risk to U.S. forces.

State Department Secretary John Kerry, a combat veteran himself, gave the memo-signers a dose of reality.  According to the New York Times:

Mr. Kerry raised a series of questions about what might happen if the dissenters won the day.  What would be the legal basis for bombing Mr. Assad’s forces, in the absence of resolutions by the United Nations or even NATO?  What would happen if American forces came into an accidental confrontation with the Russian Air Force, which has defended Mr. Assad? What if American pilots were shot down?  How would the effort affect the American battle with the Islamic State?

There is no way that the proposal of the 51 officials could be carried out without real peril to U.S. servicemembers.  Consequently, among the many issues that Americans should carefully consider are these questions: Why should parents support the sending of their sons and daughters to fight for Syrians when it appears that many refugees may be unwilling to fight themselves?  Indeed, is it right to order the mothers (and fathers) in the U.S. military to leave their children to fight – and perhaps die – to create a better future for Syrian children if Syrians able to fight aren’t willing to do the same?

When I discussed this after the Aspen panel with a panelist from the State Department, she pointed out that the U.S. military was a volunteer force (as if I’d forgotten).  As someone who’s seen wounded warriors the same age as many of the young people fleeing Syria, I’m well aware of the noble voluntary sacrifice of our uniformed men and women and their families.

I never suggested that any Syrians be conscripted to fight for their country and their countrymen, but her remark called to mind an infamous incident involving then Secretary of State Madeline Albright:

At a 1993 meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell–who gave his name to the doctrine that the military should be used only after a clear political goal has been set, and then only with decisive force–she challenged the general: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”  As Powell later recalled, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”

To say the least, an attitude like Albright’s raises red flags with generals and other military leaders.  Any implication that a decision-maker might think “this superb military” is simply some sort of inanimate and expendable tool is an anathema to senior officers.  Generals are keenly aware that the “superb military” is in reality a collection of America’s finest young people.

Fair warning to politicos: anything that even vaguely hints of any sort of cavalier attitude about putting these troops in harms’ way will be received very, very darkly by America’s generals, not to mention the general public (which has more confidence in the armed forces than any other institution in American society).

Most importantly, the fact that some Americans (fewer than 1%) have volunteered to serve their nation in uniform should not diminish in any way the proper reluctance to put them at risk.  Their volunteer status does not make their lives any less precious.

This doesn’t mean that America and her military aren’t ready to make sacrifices.  The truism that freedom is not free is something very deeply embedded in the American psyche.  When the Founding Fathers declared independence from Britain they knew they were taking on what was then the world’s premier military superpower, and did so under circumstances in which only a minority of their countrymen actually supported the effort.

All the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “fully aware that the punishment for treason was death by hanging or dismemberment.” Nevertheless, the revolutionaries grimly but boldly wrote: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

In short, they were prepared to risk everything (and some did indeed pay a very steep price).  Should we not ask the same of others seeking freedom?

However, before we look too askance at Syrian refugees, we have to very candidly assess our own situation.  Last year Politico reported a Washington Post survey that “found that 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds expressed support for using ground troops against [ISIS].”

The problem?  85 percent also said they would “probably” or “definitely” not join the military (even though a recent Harris Poll revealed that 78% of Americans rate “military officer” as one of the nation’s most prestigious occupations).  The article went on to report that:

The Department of Defense estimates that 71 percent of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. today would fail to qualify based on the current enlistment criteria because of physical or mental health issues, low educational scores or major criminal convictions.

These statistics can be mashed together several ways, but it might be possible to interpret them to mean that of the 17- to 24-year-olds supporting the use of ground troops in Syria, only a relatively small percentage are qualified to join the military and are also actually willing to serve with those who would go in harms’ way.  Something to think about, isn’t it?

Furthermore, although the President claims that defeating ISIS is his “top priority,” he additionally opines that the terrorist group does not present an “existential threat” to the United States.  While that may be the case for Americans – today anyway – I’m not so sure that it is necessarily true for Syrians.  But could it be that the refugees believe they will never return to Syria, despite what some countries may think, and this makes them reluctant to go back to a dangerous and uncertain fight?

All of this brings to mind philosopher John Stuart Mill’s famous observation:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things.  The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.  The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

As calls to intervene in Syria persist, both Syrians and Americans plainly have much to contemplate.

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