When General Grant assumed control of federal forces during the Civil War, he told President Lincoln that the quickest way to end the war was to win it. When General Sheridan conquered the breadbasket of the Confederacy, the Shenandoah Valley, he imposed harsh limitations on travel and farm production and said the road to victory was the shortest path to peace.
We are now engaged in a conflict that is not a war (war has become a non-word for this administration), but we are told it could last a very long time. We have been assured there will be no American boots on the ground in the area of this conflict other than those worn by strictly non-combat advisors. In Syria and Iraq, we will rely solely on air power, where we are virtually unopposed, and expect allied troops to do the dirty work on the ground. Allied troops on the ground consist of the Iraqi Amy, which the jihadists, despite being outnumbered three to one, routed with ease when they swept through the Sunni provinces, and the Peshmerga, the military force of the ethnic Kurds, who are well-organized and courageous but insufficiently armed.
As of this writing, the Peshmerga are battling for their lives in the Kurdish city of Kobani, which the jihadists, more numerous and more heavily armed, are besieging. The Pentagon has already commented, en passant, that it expects the city to be lost – not exactly the most propitious announcement one cam make under these circumstances, but presumably helpful for domestic political reasons.
Actually, the battle of Kobani had already become grotesque. The city lies on the Turkish-Syrian border. From the Turkish side, one can see the streets of the city, and the fighting taking place there. From the Syrian side, one can see rows of Turkish army tanks – lined up presumably to go somewhere, which of course they never did.
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the battle of Warsaw in 1945. The Soviet army pursued the retreating Germans to the gates of Warsaw, at which point the underground Polish army thought it opportune to rise and give battle. The Soviets then paused and watched the Gestapo massacre the inhabitants. Only when the city was in ruins and the underground army obliterated did the Soviets move forward.
The situation is not exactly the same – just reminiscent. The Turks may never move forward.
The Turkish legislature has already passed legislation allowing Turkish troops to move into combat zones. Turkish President Erdoğan and his foreign minister have expressed their willingness to join in a collaborative effort but insist on a no-fly zone and a combat-free area where war refugees can be accommodated and training take place. The no-fly zone, though not officially declared, is actually already in existence. The jihadists have no aircraft, and the Syrian Air Force has no desire to get in the way of the Americans.
We can do what we will in the sky above Syria. The ground refuge is a different story and would naturally require ground troops. François Hollande, the premier of France, who has already committed planes to the air war, finds the idea worthwhile, but our administration cannot accept it. The reasons have not been fully spelled out, but it appears to be an infringement of Syria’s sovereignty and an indication that the United States does not object to the splitting of Syria into different parts. Of course, the bombing of Jihadists in Syria is an infringement of Syrian sovereignty, but that hasn’t stopped us. On the other hand, we have always stated that Syria is one cohesive country, not to be divided, and we wish to maintain that position.
Turkey’s position in this non-war is like so much else in the Mid-East: complicated and unclear. It dislikes the Assad regime, considering it a lackey of Iran, its arch-rival for its longed for but never to be attained hegemony in the area. It has certain secular customs dating from Mustafa Kemal, which, though fading in today’s world, are still adhered to. Consequently, Turkey appears to support the moderate elements rather than the Muslim extremists in the Syrian rebel ranks. In other areas of the Middle East, they support the Muslim Brotherhood, which no one can call moderate.
Ever since Turkey became a nation-state rather than an empire, the government has had trouble with the Kurds, a sizable ethnic minority. The Kurds fought to preserve their ethnic identity, while the Turks fought to integrate them completely into the Turkish mass, mostly by eliminating the Kurdish language. President Erdoğan has managed to calm the situation considerably by making a number of key concessions, including the use of the Kurdish language in education and in Kurd-inhabited areas. Nevertheless it is difficult to believe that Turkey would welcome the establishment of an independent Kurdish state consisting of the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq that border the Kurdish area of Turkey.
That was in the offing until the jihadists or Islamic State (ISIS) turned up and began the slow, painful, and bloody conquest of Kobani. It is difficult to believe that the Turks would prefer the jihadists rather than the Kurds to be on their border, but that, according to Pentagon spokesmen, is what will eventually happen.
What is America’s role in this mess? First we need time for self-examination. We must relearn who we are and what we stand for. We should then be able to deduce who our friends are and who they are not. Once we master these basic issues – for some reason we lost track of them – we can then conduct foreign policy.
Naturally we avoid war, but sometimes we cannot. If war is essential, we must engage in it as energetically as possible. Our aim is to win completely and quickly. We should never use the phrase “no boots on the ground.” American boots with soldiers in them will go wherever the government after-study decides they are most needed. And they will, as always, perform well. If there is a war, we should allow them to win it, and by doing so preserve our country and the ideals it embodies.