• The Pendulum

Overreach or Restraint? America's Next Move in Syria


The conditions of American involvement in Syria metamorphosed. The U.S.’s success in the initial victory conditions of obliterating ISIS in the area failed to deter it from becoming more­­­ involved. The constant evolution of these initial conditions in Syria mirror the path the U.S.has made well-worn. Whether in Korea, Vietnam, or elsewhere, the U.S. gradually increased its involvement until it became entrenched. As time passes, the victory conditions morph beyond recognition. Scholars began referring to this phenomenon as “mission creep” during the Persian Gulf War. Americans need to remain cognizant of the intervention that they approve of, not admissive of whatever it evolves into. In 2014, the United States launched its initial “limited” airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, meanwhile a resolution passed in the House, 273-156, to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. At the time, President Barack Obama stressed that U.S. armed forces “do not and will not have a combat mission” in the war on ISIS.

Obama’s statement seems alien when examining the current American involvement in Syria. Observers confirm that American ground troops fight in Syria with organized bases. Furthermore, the Pentagon revealed in December that actual U.S. ground troop numbers were quadruple official estimates. Concurrently, the U.S. carried out airstrikes against Syrian-regime forces that advanced on a U.S. base containing military advisers to Kurdish troops. This clash further heightened tensions between the U.S. and the Russian-backed Syrian regime. Events like these beg the question, has the U.S. learned from its past? The Vietnam War also began with only military advisers. Deployed to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), American troops intended to serve a non-combat purpose—which they initially did. While not completely out of the line of fire considering the 1959 bombings upon military adviser installations in Saigon, these advisers did not carryout counterinsurgency operations. Counterinsurgency operations are actions taken to combat guerrilla warfare tactics that involve enemy troops blending in with civilians and carrying out ambushes and bombings. When the ARVN made little progress even with the training of the U.S., the U.S. began its descent into a grueling, decade-long, ground war where 47,434 U.S. servicemen were killed in action and another 10,786 died from other causes.



The “other causes” included over 9,000 deaths from accidents (accidental crashes, explosions, etc.) and almost 1,000 from illnesses encountered on the ground.  Much like Vietnam, the U.S. began in Syria with only advisers; yet it seems that the U.S. will escalate beyond that, as seen with numerous airstrikes. Furthermore, just as China had backed the Vietnamese, Russia now backs the Syrian regime; as such the U.S. again risks conflict with a major power. Russia could obstruct U.S. forces if America were to set its sights upon Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, after defeating ISIS.

Vietnam creates a precedent for an unsuccessful application of military advisers followed by escalation. Alternatively, the Korean peninsula around 1950 exemplifies the successful application and completion of the initial condition of victory. On June 27, 1950, President Harry Truman laid out terms upon which the U.S. would, with U.N. approval, intervene in the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The U.S. presented the repulsion of the invaders across the 38th parallel, the border between the Koreas, as the initial condition of victory. Yet, when American forces succeeded in this condition, they pressed on. Determined, they set out to retake the entire Korean Peninsula. After the U.S. took Pyongyang, China intervened and pushed American forces back to the 38th parallel. Mission creep took hold of American commanders and yielded no result at the conclusion of the war. In fact, it only led to 33,739 combat deaths for U.S. forces.

In retrospect, the U.S. push to take North Korea seems permissible because of the current, nuclear quandary with North Korea; a threat that would not exist if the U.S. had succeeded. Instead, the U.S. never had a chance of reunifying Korea through military action. Zhou Enlai, then Premier of China, affirmed to the U.N. that China would intervene if the U.S. crossed the 38th parallel again. Further, the U.S. was ill-prepared for this conflict. While it had the military might to bully North Korea, it could do little to match the pure strength in numbers that the Chinese boasted. China’s threat doomed America’s escalation from the start.

When accounting for the heinous acts of Bashar al-Assad and the tensions between the U.S. and his regime, it remains plausible that the U.S. will act to curtail his reign. In fact, recent U.S. measures indicate this. Many of those trained and armed by U.S.military advisers fight, not only, ISIS, but also the Syrian regime. This, alone, implies that that the U.S. provides material assistance to groups with an eye toward its next course of action.


Mission creep’s impact goes beyond Korea, Vietnam, Syria and includes the Persian Gulf War, where scholars first coined the term. The repulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait later escalated into the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the nation-building process in Iraq. U.S. citizenry seems unable to stop its government from biting off more than it can chew. The major cause of mission creep likely concerns America’s supreme confidence, a fact that is not entirely misplaced. With the world’s strongest military, the U.S. tends to overestimate its capabilities. In Korea, General Douglas MacArthur reassured President Truman of Chinese intervention by saying that if the Chinese intervened, then there would be the greatest slaughter.” Reality, however, showed otherwise. Fortunately, the U.S. can take specific precautions to prevent future mission creep.

Firstly, one must keep in mind the initial victory conditions. Simultaneously, one must find the relation between the conditions and the proposed course of action. In Korea, the initial victory conditions specified that the U.S. repulse North Korea across  the 38th parallel, restoring the original border. In Syria, these conditions specify the obliteration of ISIS and reclaiming its territory. Remembering these conditions allows one to differentiate between courses of action that will meet the initial victory conditions and those that will escalate beyond said conditions, thereby identifying mission creep before it starts.

Secondly, one must  familiarize oneself in political rhetoric. Many politicians try to make their objectives vague so they can keep their promises open-ended.The global war on terror exemplifies this as it appears to give the U.S. government the popular mandate to take whatever means necessary to fight terrorism. Accepting this as a voter is akin to signing a contract without comprehending the fine print. Voters must demand their government to provide more detailed plans before entering conflicts. As seen during the Vietnam War, popular support remains essential to sustaining U.S. action abroad.

American history provides parallels between mission creep of the past (in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq) and present (in Syria). The U.S. continues to escalate its presence in Syria in direct opposition of the Assad regime. Americans should feel wary of further entrenchment into another extended conflict that could spiral into a confrontation with Russia. History told a cautionary tale for reaching beyond initial objectives and America should listen. By reviewing initial victory conditions, understanding political rhetoric, and demanding more specificity from politicians, the U.S. can mitigate mission creep

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