As the bloodbath in Syria continues without significant gains by either side, the international community has struggled to find any kind of ‘solution’ to the crisis. Potential U.S. involvement in the form of arms for Syrian rebels have spawned comparisons to the U.S. arming of the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s, highlighting the main concern that weaponry might fall into the wrong hands. Although the U.S. policy community has yet to make a decision about how to navigate the vast continuum between military and humanitarian intervention in Syria, it should consider its own lessons learned when deciding how to best address the Syrian situation and there are no better repositories of this information than the military’s counterinsurgency manuals. These manuals are informed by years of experience designing and carrying out war missions and stabilization operations. The lessons for working with Syria’s authoritarian regime and its citizens, though, might best come from the U.S. Military’s first counterinsurgency manual.
Published in 1940, the Small Wars Manual (SWM) tells of lessons learned over the 20 years that the U.S. Marine Corps fought small “Banana Wars” (now known as insurgencies) where they occupied and administered several Latin American nations and learned the utmost importance of understanding local realities. The SWM made great attempts to show the need to understand how the military sees the world just as the military needs to understand how the world sees it and why. When boiled down to exclude obsolete sections, the SWM serves as a sort of timeless guide to engage in ethnographic understanding.
The U.S. cannot, as Council on Foreign Relations President, Richard Haas argues, maintain policy choices in the Middle East that “lie between preoccupation and disengagement.” Since militarily disbanding a state and security apparatus, as was the case in Iraq a decade ago, is an unwanted and unrealistic option, perhaps in Syria we should heed the lessons of decades past:
“A serious study of the people, their racial, political, religious, and mental development [is of primary importance]. By analysis and study the reasons for the existing emergency may be deduced; the most practical method of solving the problem is to understand the possible approaches thereto and the repercussions to be expected from any actions which may be contemplated.”
Such words from the SWM ring of the power of cultural understanding of the local population, a concept that has both deterred the U.S. from arming the Syrian opposition and may also be useful in assessing the effectiveness of other forms of aid. If it were not for the ubiquitous rise of radical jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the U.S. may very well have already provided increased military support to the Syrian opposition movement. If there is one lesson to learn from the U.S. arming the Afghan mujahidin that would eventually lead to Taliban rule, it is that political, economic and cultural disengagement after the fall of a regime is the most direct route to instability. Therefore, efforts to invest in and supply the appropriate groups, something the U.S. has been privy to but not directly involved, are only the tip of the iceberg.
To understand how to engage in a country that has seen military action for millennia, perhaps we should invest more heavily in a manual that can help build movements of conscience through cultural understanding and engagement with and within a country. Maybe that way, people can hold their leaders to account before real and tragic abuses serve as the rallying cry for the use of force.