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The Art of Deterrence in Syria

By DAVID ROMANO 9/2/2018
On Thursday, American forces in Syria bombed pro-regime Syrian forces, killing up to 100 of Assad’s militiamen. The American use of force seems to have been in response to the Syrian forces’ attempt to seize territory and oil fields from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around Deir el-Zor. When the pro-Assad forces moved T-55 and T-72 tanks east of the Euphrates (a de facto dividing line in the area) and began hitting SDF bases with artillery, the Americans responded with air strikes and artillery of their own – both of which apparently inflicted a large number of casualties very quickly. 

The Russians immediately denied any role behind what was apparently a prodding maneuver or an attempt to gain back some territory for the Assad regime. The commanding American general accepted the Russian statement, saying “Just as the coalition does not direct the operations of the SDF, the Russians do not direct operations of the Syrian regime.” 

As any student of politics and war knows, deterrent threats must be clearly communicated and credible if they are to have any hope of success. The American action around Deir el Zor thus served to greatly bolster American deterrent threats aimed at averting attacks on its forces or that of its allies in Syria. If the Syrians, Russians, Turks and others were unsure about Washington’s willingness to protect its soldiers and allies in the Syrian theater, they now have a better idea.

Deterrence and threat in Syria especially remain a lot more complicated than this, however. People rightly wonder if the United States and Russia are threatening to attack each other, or if Turkey is really threatening to go to war with the United States’ forces in the area. Surely any of these scenarios appear mad to everyone involved?

For some insight into the issue, we can turn to Professor Thomas Schelling’s work on deterrence and conflict – insights on Cold War dynamics which won Dr. Schelling the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics. To begin with, Schelling observes that “A country can threaten to stumble into a war even if it cannot credibly threaten to invite one.” He explains further that “We often talk as though a ‘deterrent threat’ was a credible threat to launch a disastrous war coolly and deliberately in response to some enemy transgression… [but] The choice is unlikely to be one between everything and nothing. 


The question is really: Is the United States [or another country] likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war, something that could lead – through a compounding of actions and reactions, of calculations and miscalculations, of alarms and false alarms, of commitments and challenges – to a major war?” 

To bring this back to the Syrian context, neither the United States nor Russia can credibly threaten war against each other, especially over limited strategic interests for both in Syria. What they can threaten, however, are immediate reactions to tactical battlefield moves that in turn engender serious risks of escalation towards unintended war. As they did countless times during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, they dance this dance closer and closer to the precipice of a direct conflict neither can credibly be willing to start, then de-escalate away from the brink for at least a while. 

A similar logic prevails with Turkey and the United States. Turkey cannot credibly threaten to go to war against the United States due to U.S. support for the Kurdish-led SDF. What they can threaten, however, are accidents that contain within them the potential for unwanted escalation to war. The United States can threaten, even more credibly, the same should Turkish forces attack areas where American troops are present. 

This is why Turkey will not likely attack Manbij or similar areas, whatever the rhetoric coming from Ankara. At the same time, none of the actors involved in Syria wish to back down due to the loss in credibility this would entail. As Schelling describes, “It would be possible to get into a situation in which either side felt that to yield now would create such an asymmetrical situation, would be such a gratuitous act of surrender, that whoever backed down could not persuade anybody that he wouldn’t yield again tomorrow and the day after.” 

All of these points apply to areas where the United States has already committed troops, but not areas like Afrin in northwest Syria where they did not. Again, Schelling’s observations about the Cold War seem just as applicable here: “…issues are decided not by who can bring the most force to bear in a locality, or on a particular issue, but by who is eventually willing to bring more force to bear or able to make it appear that more is forthcoming…” 

With no troops in Afrin, the Americans could not credibly deter the Turkish invasion of that area, even with a threat of accidental conflict. Since Turkey was also able to signal more determination in Afrin, it then made little sense for the Americans to waste much effort trying to reverse it. Instead, they choose to concentrate on blocking any Turkish, or Russian/Syrian/Iranian designs on other areas in Syria where they do have a presence and a credible deterrent threat. 

The Americans need to remain in places like Manbij, Kobane and Jaziree in order to buttress their best anti-ISIS Syrian ally (the SDF), as well as to potentially block Russian and Iranian designs for these areas. With Turkey having been at best unhelpful in Syria, given its support of various Jihadi groups (including ISIS at one time before 2014), the SDF remains the only choice for Washington. The Americans thus intend to communicate their commitment to this choice clearly, while Turkey and others look for any loopholes outside this commitment — such as the hapless region of Afrin. 

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


ExpatZ | 9/2/2018
Deterrence? How about aggression, occupation and illegal warfare? Those words fit the US posture far more closely.
Pliny The Kurd | 9/2/2018
There is no justification whatsoever for America abandoning Afrin.A substencial part of the Kurdish troops who liberated Kobane and Raqqa are from Afrin.Nobody should justify the U.S betrayal of the Kurds.Betrayal is betrayal.
FAUthman | 9/2/2018
Brilliant column!
Guest | 9/2/2018
I think you've underestimated what kind of response would happen as a result of an attack on the U.S. military or coalition forces that it partners with as a means of carrying out it's mission, Operation Inherent Resolve. Whatever the attacking force, a world power, a NATO partner, regime forces, other rebel forces, the response is likely to be proportional to the attack against it. At worse, it could trigger an offensive attack designed to permanently make sure it's not attacked by that outside force again. America is at war with ISIS, but those operations are affected by other fluid situations in the region, including its NATO ally, Turkey, that has its own objectives, as well as Russia's objectives which are to protect its strategic military facilities in the region, eventually gain control of the Dardanelles, as well as destabilize relations between countries in the region who interfere with Russia's goals. You are correct that an offensive attack against forces other than ISIS or Al Qaeda is not likely since that would detract from the fight against ISIS by having to utilize a part of its military capacity, but there is the possibility that it could happen. The psychology of the U.S. military is methodical and pointed in nature. A mission is defined, objectives are set, strategies are developed, and an action plan is implemented. Partnerships are purely based on achieving the mission, not so much on emotion. Over time, relationships like the one between the United States and the United Kingdom do arise when men like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt unite in determination, and form a bond that still retains considerable substance even today to the point that when one nation is in need, the other will rise, whatever the circumstances, to meet the occasion. But, those type of relationships take rare conditions to form and they are formed by common views shared in both societies that form the bedrock of those societies, and have done so over a long period of time. Do not underestimate the self-discipline, or professional ability, of the U.S. soldier in defending itself or carrying out the mission set before him or her. My recommendation would be for those partners to take advantage of and utilize that relationship to achieve common goals but not to see it for something other than what it is. Over time that partnership could grow into a relationship that binds itself with common social beliefs and a level of confidence in each other that makes the relationship much more than a partnership that arose from a need to work together and reach a common goal. Speaking from my own personal feelings, as an American, I have developed a very strong admiration for the people of Rojava and Kurdistan. The way the Kurdish people, both Rojava and Kurdistan, came together in Kobani to defend that city, and more importantly their values, and their society, will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.
FAUthman | 10/2/2018
US has over 500 military bases around the world. Their presence is not exactly transnational or mission based. They serve also as a deterrence, a "trip wire" to provide stability. In Kuwait US has 12 bases they will remain there for as long as there is a threat from Iran. In Kurdistan Iraq and Syria similar bases are needed to get an economy and a functioning government to take root, instability is what breeds the conditions for an ISIS come back. In Operation inherent Resolve, the US is committed to creating the condition that will prevent the return of ISIS or the likes of to territories it DEFINES, in some cases, and not in other cases such as in "Global war on Terror".

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