Complex Syria Conflict Raises Difficult Military Questions

Country name Syria written on global map with wooden letters and straight pin. This photo may use as travel background. Strai
Country name Syria written on global map with wooden letters and straight pin. This photo may use as travel background. Straight pin are pinned on significant countries.

For several years, even as the sectarian violence that has wracked Syria continues to worsen, President Barack Obama has insisted the U.S. will not be drawn into a ground conflict in the country, as has been in the case over the past two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, this week's announcement by the president that "dozens" of U.S. Special Forces troops would be deployed to Syria led to predictable claims that the Obama Administration had gone back on its promise to not place "boots on the ground" as part of its effort to end the conflict.

This apparent wrinkle in U.S. military strategy illustrates the most difficult decision American presidents face - whether, when and how to intervene with American armed forces in regional conflicts.

While every regional conflict brings with it a unique set of circumstances, politics and challenges, the calculus of determining when U.S. military intervention is warranted, and in what form, requires balancing a number of interests and factors. For starters, U.S. foreign policy makers must define, articulate and protect the country's core national interests.

They must weigh the risks to the homeland and our citizens, humanitarian, economic and political considerations, the interests of our friends and allies, and our treaty obligations.

As they weigh these and other concerns, they confront a crucial, but often ignored, question: What resources are we willing to expend as a country to protect our interests in a given situation?

Setting goals without the resources to achieve them is a frequent fault of American foreign policy.

Those resources include money, time, the opportunity cost associated with devoting resources to one part of the world over another - and most importantly the lives of our men and women.

The challenge, of course, is to find the right mix of military, political and economic tools to protect our interests at a cost that we as a nation are prepared to bear.

In cases where our core interests are clear - e.g. the threats to our country and its citizens - the answers are usually not all that hard: We will expend whatever resources are required to protect those core interests. Much more difficult are cases when our interests may be significant, but are not a core interest.

The current conflict in Syria brings with it an especially challenging set of realities for the U.S. to navigate. It is a complex region with a long history of instability and intense levels of ethnic strife. It also is a part of the world in which the U.S. has significant national interests and one in which we already have invested vast human and monetary resources over decades.

Most policymakers agree that U.S. interests require that we play a leading role in untangling the civil war in Syria, and stabilizing the region. We must not let Syria, or any other area, become a safe haven for ISIS or other extremists, from which they can plan and execute further acts of terror, and we must protect our friends and allies. That is a core interest of ours. Beyond that, we have significant interests in alleviating a humanitarian nightmare for millions of innocent people across the Middle East and protecting access to energy supplies to the U.S. and our allies around the world.

There is broad, though not unanimous, agreement that large commitments of combat forces to assure a unified Syria is not necessary to protect our core interests.

The U.S. should remain active in the region diplomatically and militarily. We can and should continue to provide intelligence, economic and military aid and training to our friends and allies, and use of our air power to support ground fighting. We should not exclude further use of special-forces, but use them sparingly and selectively.

Our ambitious objectives of bringing democracy to the region should be put on hold. We must accept that many problems in this region are beyond our ability to solve, at least at a price we are willing to pay. In the case of Syria, the U.S. will have to accept an ambiguous result that may well include the partitioning of the country.

A part of our calculation should be that the U.S. has foreign policy commitments and interests beyond those in the Middle East, and should not allow ourselves to be consumed with trying to fashion solutions in Syria at the expense of protecting core interests elsewhere.

The key point is that we distinguish between core and significant interests, provide whatever resources are necessary to protect our core interests, and with significant interests, be satisfied with helping friends and allies to achieve our common goals.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.