Options for the United States to Arm Anti-Assad Factions in Syria with Defensive Weapons

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for Maritime Strategy, the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion WestWisdom of CrowdsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/, and on Substack at The Non-Progressive Democrat.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Options for the United States to Arm Anti-Assad Factions in Syria with Defensive Weapons

Date Originally Written:  February 27, 2023.

Date Originally Published:  March 6, 2023.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author fears that political reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, undertaken with the goal of returning refugees displaced during the Syrian Civil War from Turkey back to Syria, could precipitate massive, destabilizing refugee flows, and could vastly increase the level of violence inflicted on Syrian civilians by Syrian regime and Russian forces. The author believes the United States could consider providing defensive weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles[1], to Syrians who continue to resist the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to help them protect themselves against future attacks. 

Background:  Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Turkey, led by President Recep Erdogan, has sought the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has supported armed groups resisting Assad’s rule[2]. Recently, however, Erdogan and Assad have explored possible reconciliation, to the degree that their respective defense ministers met in person on December 28, 2022, for the first time since the war began[3]. Erdogan has explored this fence-mending with a view to returning Syrian refugees in Turkey to Syria, as Turkish public opinion toward the refugees is largely negative[4]. However, many refugees are unwilling to return to Syria, fearing persecution and violence from the Assad regime if they do[5]. The earthquake that struck both Syria and Turkey on February 6, 2023, has made refugees’ lives even more difficult, and their prospects more daunting[6].

In 2015, Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Assad regime. Since then, Syrian regime and Russian forces have repeatedly launched air and artillery strikes against civilian targets in regions of Syria controlled by opponents of the regime[7][8][9][10][11]. The 2015 refugee crisis, in which millions of people (many of them Syrian) arrived in Europe fleeing war and persecution[12], occurred in part due to the deliberate uses of force against civilians[13]. The refugees’ arrival was deeply controversial in many European countries, producing widespread political backlash[14][15][16]. Approximately 3.6 million Syrians are refugees in Turkey[17], while approximately 6.9 million are displaced within Syria[18].

Significance:  If a Turkey-Syria reconciliation precipitates another massive flow of Syrian refugees into Europe, it could weaken European solidarity in arming Ukraine against Russia’s invasion[19]. Russian President Vladimir Putin benefited politically from the difficulties Europe experienced due to refugee flows in 2015[20], and would likely experience similar benefits from a new Syrian refugee crisis. Such events could occur in tandem with massacres of Syrian civilians by Syrian regime and Russian forces on a scale larger than is currently ongoing.

Option #1: The United States removes the terrorist designation from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and provides them defensive weapons.

Risk:  HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, a designation stemming from the group’s predecessor, Jabhat al-Nusra, being previously affiliated with al-Qaeda[21][22]. Removing that designation, let alone providing HTS with weapons of any kind, would be extremely controversial within the U.S. political context. Furthermore, HTS has been accused of extensive human rights violations in the portion of northwestern Syria it controls [23].

Gain:  Arming HTS with defensive weapons could provide at least a limited shield to civilians in Idlib province, the portion of Syria currently most frequently targeted by the Syrian military and its Russian ally[24][25]. Furthermore, HTS is a well-structured organization with approximately 10,000 fighters[26], obviating the need for the U.S. to engage in creating a fighting force from scratch.

Option #2: The United States provides defensive weapons to factions within the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Risk:  The SNA is supported by the government of Turkey[27], and many of its factions may not be amenable to aligning with U.S. interests, particularly if U.S. and Turkish interests conflict. Also, the portions of northern Syria controlled by the SNA do not include Idlib province[28], the region facing the most frequent strikes by regime and Russian forces. Furthermore, some SNA factions have been accused of various forms of brutality against civilians[29].

Gain:  Arming factions of the SNA would take advantage of the fact that well-organized, armed groups opposed to the Assad regime already exist within Syria[30], saving the U.S. the time and effort of trying to create such groups from scratch. Furthermore, if some SNA factions refuse to support Turkey-Syria political reconciliation, providing them with defensive weapons could improve their chances of surviving as an anti-Assad force in a period of renewed, expanded conflict – a force that would likely be grateful to the U.S. for helping them defend themselves. 

Option #3: The United States organizes new groups of anti-Assad Syrians and provides them with defensive weapons.

Risk:   U.S. attempts in 2014-2015 to organize new armed groups in Syria to fight the Islamic State fared poorly, yielding far fewer fighters than hoped for[31]. It is unclear whether any attempt to organize similar groups to defend against the Assad regime and Russia would be any more successful.

Gain:  Creating new groups, if successful, would allow the U.S. to defend Syrian civilians against attacks without the moral complications that might arise from arming HTS or portions of the SNA.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Purzycki, Michael D. “SAMs to Syria: Can the Marines Weaken Putin on Another Front?” Center for Maritime Strategy, October 5, 2022. https://centerformaritimestrategy.org/publications/sams-to-syria-can-the-marines-weaken-putin-on-another-front/

[2] Siccardi, Francesco. “How Syria Changed Turkey’s Foreign Policy.” Carnegie Europe, September 14, 2021. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/09/14/how-syria-changed-turkey-s-foreign-policy-pub-85301

[3] France 24. “Russian, Syrian, Turkish defence ministers meet in Moscow for first talks since 2011.” December 28, 2022. https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20221228-russian-syrian-turkish-defence-ministers-meet-in-moscow-for-first-talks-since-2011

[4] Khoury, Nabeel A. “Erdoğan’s Rapprochement with Assad Spells Trouble for Syrian Refugees.” Arab Center Washington DC, February 1, 2023. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/erdogans-rapprochement-with-assad-spells-trouble-for-syrian-refugees/

[5] Levkowitz, Joshua. “Syrian refugees in Turkey watch uneasily as Erdogan warms to Assad.” Al-Monitor, January 15, 2023. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/01/syrian-refugees-turkey-watch-uneasily-erdogan-warms-assad

[6] Dawi, Akmal. “After Earthquake, Some Syrian War Refugees Look Beyond Turkey.” Voice of America, February 22, 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/after-earthquake-some-syrian-war-refugees-look-beyond-turkey-/6974321.html.

[7] Hill, Evan, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, Drew Jordan and Whitney Hurst. “Russia Bombed Four Syrian Hospitals. We Have Proof.” New York Times, October 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000005697485/russia-bombed-syrian-hospitals.html

[8] Breslow, Jason. “Russia showed its playbook in Syria. Here’s what it may mean for civilians in Ukraine.” NPR, March 1, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/03/01/1083686606/ukraine-russia-civilian-casualties-syria

[9] “Syria: Deadly attacks affecting IDP camps.” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, November 8, 2022. https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/11/syria-deadly-attacks-affecting-idp-camps

[10] “Syria/Russia: 12 Civilians Dead in Idlib Artillery Attacks.” ReliefWeb, December 8, 2021. https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syriarussia-12-civilians-dead-idlib-artillery-attacks-enar

[11] “Ten Killed in Syria Regime Rocket Strikes: Monitor.” Defense Post, November 7, 2022. https://www.thedefensepost.com/2022/11/07/syria-regime-rocket-strikes/

[12] “Is this humanitarian migration crisis different?” OECD Migration Policy Debates, September 2015. https://www.oecd.org/migration/Is-this-refugee-crisis-different.pdf

[13] “Russian bombing in Syria ‘fuels refugee crisis’ says US official as airstrike kills 39.” Guardian, January 9, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/09/imprecise-russian-bombing-syria-fuelling-refugee-crisis-us-official

[14] Garrett, Amanda. “The Refugee Crisis, Brexit, and the Reframing of Immigration in Britain.” EuropeNow, August 1, 2019. https://www.europenowjournal.org/2019/09/09/the-refugee-crisis-brexit-and-the-reframing-of-immigration-in-britain/

[15] Karnitschnig, Matthew. “Backlash grows against Merkel over refugees.” Politico, September 11, 2015. https://www.politico.eu/article/backlash-merkel-refugees-migration-germany-coalition-pressure/

[16] Cienski, Jan. “Why Poland doesn’t want refugees.” Politico, May 21, 2017. https://www.politico.eu/article/politics-nationalism-and-religion-explain-why-poland-doesnt-want-refugees/

[17] Ridgwell, Henry. “Facing Poverty and Hostility, Refugees in Turkey Mull Return to War-Torn Syria.” Voice of America, December 9, 2022. https://www.voanews.com/a/facing-poverty-and-hostility-refugees-in-turkey-mull-return-to-war-torn-syria/6869601.html

[18] “Syria Refugee Crisis Explained.” USA for UNHCR, July 8, 2022. https://www.unrefugees.org/news/syria-refugee-crisis-explained/

[19] Fix, Liana, and Jeffrey Mankoff. “Europe Has to Step Up on Ukraine to Keep the U.S. From Stepping Back.” Council on Foreign Relations, December 9, 2022. https://www.cfr.org/article/europe-has-step-ukraine-keep-us-stepping-back

[20] Ellyatt, Holly. “Putin ‘weaponizing’ migrant crisis to hurt Europe.” CNBC, March 2, 2016. https://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/02/putin-weaponizing-migrant-crisis-to-hurt-europe.html

[21] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.” National Counterterrorism Center, October 2022. https://www.dni.gov/nctc/ftos/hts_fto.html

[22] Solomon, Christopher. “HTS: Evolution of a Jihadi Group.” Wilson Center, July 13, 2022. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/hts-evolution-jihadist-group

[23] “The Most Notable Hay’at Tahrir al Sham Violations Since the Establishment of Jabhat al Nusra to Date.” Syrian Network for Human Rights, January 31, 2022. https://snhr.org/blog/2022/01/31/57274/

[24] Ben Hamad, Fatma. “‘We’ve gotten used to air strikes’: A Syrian documents Russian attacks in Idlib.” France 24, August 16, 2022. https://observers.france24.com/en/middle-east/20220816-syrie-idlib-frappes-doubles-raids-russe-crimes-de-guerre

[25] Waters, Gregory. “Idlib is under siege.” Middle East Institute, February 22, 2023. https://www.mei.edu/blog/idlib-under-siege

[26] Solomon.

[27] Kasapoglu, Can. “The Syrian National Army and the Future of Turkey’s Frontier Land Force.” Jamestown Foundation, March 12, 2021. https://jamestown.org/program/the-syrian-national-army-and-the-future-of-turkeys-frontier-land-force/

[28] Balanche, Fabrice. “The Assad Regime Has Failed to Restore Full Sovereignty Over Syria.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 10, 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/assad-regime-has-failed-restore-full-sovereignty-over-syria

[29] Tsurkov, Elizabeth. “The Gangs of Northern Syria: Life Under Turkey’s Proxies.” December 7, 2022. https://newlinesinstitute.org/syria/the-gangs-of-northern-syria-life-under-turkeys-proxies/

[30] Özkizilcik, Ömer. “The Syrian National Army (SNA): Structure, Functions, and Three Scenarios for its Relationship with Damascus.” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, October 2020. https://dam.gcsp.ch/files/doc/sna-structure-function-damascus

[31] Ackerman, Spencer. “US has trained only ‘four or five’ Syrian fighters against Isis, top general testifies.” Guardian, September 16, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/16/us-military-syrian-isis-fighters

Capacity / Capability Enhancement Civil War Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers Refugees Syria Turkey United States

Options for the U.S. to Approach India as a Fellow Superpower

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion WestWisdom of CrowdsCharged AffairsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/, and on Substack at The Non-Progressive Democrat.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Options for the U.S. to Approach India as a Fellow Superpower

Date Originally Written:  June 12, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  June 27, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes good relations between the United States and India, including respect for India as a fellow superpower, are vital for confronting challenges to U.S. interests, especially those presented by China. The author views India as a fellow superpower to the U.S. due to its population, gross domestic product, economic expansion in recent decades, military strength, and possession of nuclear weapons.

Background:  Across the early 21st century, the U.S. has developed closer political and security relations with India. The two countries participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”)[1], a forum for coordinating security activities and holding joint military exercises[2], alongside U.S. allies Australia and Japan. In 2016, the U.S. designated India a Major Defense Partner (MDP), a status similar to that of Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA)[3].

Significance:  How Washington chooses to approach India will have extremely important implications for U.S. foreign policy, particularly U.S. efforts to confront and balance China. Respecting India as a fellow superpower will help the U.S. maximize the potential for positive bilateral relations.

Option #1:  The U.S. upgrades its MDP with India to a bilateral military alliance, placing India on the level of a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member.

Risk:  A formal U.S.-India alliance would frighten and anger China, seemingly confirming the fears of Chinese officials that the U.S. is seeking to surround it militarily. China would likely seek to increase its already close military and political ties with Russia[4]. Furthermore, if China believes it is about to be completely encircled geopolitically, it may believe it has a limited window of opportunity to bring Taiwan under its control, thus encouraging an invasion of the island.

This option would also frighten and anger Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that has been a rival of India since their mutual independence from British rule in 1947. Although Pakistan is an MNNA of the U.S.[5], it is also a long-standing partner of China, a relationship motivated in large part by their shared rivalry with India[6]. Among other things, Pakistan may respond by refusing to cooperate with the U.S. in its approach to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Gain:  The prospect of two nuclear-armed states allied against China could make Beijing think twice about any aggressive move it made against the U.S. (either directly, or against a U.S. ally or partner like Japan or Taiwan) or against India (such as renewed border conflicts in the Himalayas)[7]. Option #1 would also mean that all of the U.S.’s fellow Quad members would be treaty allies[8][9], potentially turning the Quad into an Indo-Pacific equivalent of NATO. A formal alliance with the U.S. could also pull India away from Russia; the effects of India’s close relations with the Soviet Union, including in the area of arms sales, have lingered into the 21st century[10].

Option #2:  The U.S. tightens its security links to India short of a formal alliance, including efforts to build up India’s defense industrial base.

Risk:  Even without a formal alliance, any increase in U.S.-India defense cooperation will still worry China and Pakistan. Additionally, U.S. efforts to make India less dependent on foreign sources for its military equipment could irritate France, which sees increased defense exports to many countries, including India[11], as a key component of its security policy[12]. The diplomatic row in 2021 over Australia’s decision to cancel its purchase of French submarines in favor of U.S. vessels is a precedent the U.S. may want to avoid repeating[13].

Gain:  As well as deepening U.S.-India security cooperation, the U.S. building up India’s defense industry can decrease its reliance on Russia as a major provider of military equipment[14].

Option #3:  The U.S. Navy reactivates the First Fleet, and assigns a portion of the Indian Ocean as its area of responsibility.

Risk:  If the First Fleet takes waters away from the Seventh Fleet[15], it risks dividing the Indian and Pacific portions of U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. This division could complicate any comprehensive U.S. effort to balance and counter Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region[16].

Gain:  Devoting a numbered fleet to the Indian Ocean[17] would signal a U.S. commitment to good relations with India, indicating that a good relationship is not merely an adjunct of Washington’s approach to China.

Option #4:  The U.S. defers to India as de facto hegemon of South Asia, intentionally putting U.S. interests in South Asia second to India’s.

Risk:  If the U.S. treats part of the world as India’s sphere of influence without any prioritization of U.S. interests there, it could set a dangerous precedent. This option would give rhetorical ammunition to Russia in its attempt to forcibly incorporate Ukraine (as well as potential attempts to bring other Eastern European countries into its sphere), and to China in its desire to gain control of Taiwan and expand its control in the South China Sea.

Encouraging India to see itself as rightfully dominant in its region could also make conflict between India and China more likely in locations where both powers have security interests, such as Afghanistan[18] and Tajikistan[19][20]. Option #4 would also run the risk of making Pakistan more anxious, and of curtailing U.S. efforts to fight Islamist extremism in Afghanistan.

Gain:  Deferring to India in South Asia would free up U.S. time, attention, and resources to protect its interests elsewhere, particularly interests related to competition with China in the Western Pacific, and with Russia in Eastern Europe. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendations:  None.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. “Japan-Australia-India-U.S.(Quad) Leaders’ Meeting.” May 24, 2022. https://www.mofa.go.jp/fp/nsp/page1e_000402.html

[2] Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai. “The Quad Conducts Malabar Naval Exercise.” The Diplomat, August 27, 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/the-quad-conducts-malabar-naval-exercise/

[3] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Security Cooperation With India.” January 20, 2021. https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-india.

[4] Kofman, Michael. “The Emperors League: Understanding Sino-Russian Defense Cooperation.” War on the Rocks, August 6, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/08/the-emperors-league-understanding-sino-russian-defense-cooperation/

[5] U.S. Department of State. “Major Non-NATO Ally Status.” January 20, 2021. https://www.state.gov/major-non-nato-ally-status/

[6] Khalid, Masood. “Pakistan-China Relations in a Changing Geopolitical Environment.” Institute of South Asian Studies, November 30, 2021. https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/pakistan-china-relations-in-a-changing-geopolitical-environment/

[7] Slater, Joanna. “Soldiers injured in fresh border skirmish between India and China.” Washington Post, January 25, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/india-china-clash-sikkim/2021/01/25/7d82883c-5edb-11eb-a177-7765f29a9524_story.html

[8] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Relations With Japan.” January 20, 2020. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-japan/

[9] U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Relations With Australia.” June 9, 2022. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-australia/

[10] Sharma, Ashok. “India to boost arms output, fearing shortfall from Russia.” Associated Press, April 7, 2022. https://abc17news.com/news/2022/04/07/india-to-boost-arms-output-fearing-shortfall-from-russia/.

[11] Shiraishi, Togo and Moyuru Baba. “France and India partner on weapons tech in blow to Russia.” Nikkei Asia, May 6, 2022. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/France-and-India-partner-on-weapons-tech-in-blow-to-Russia.

[12] Mackenzie, Christina. “Here’s what’s behind France’s 72% jump in weapons exports.” Defense News, March 10, 2020. https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/03/10/heres-whats-behind-frances-72-jump-in-weapons-exports/

[13] Willsher, Kim. “France recalls ambassadors to US and Australia after Aukus pact.” Guardian, September 17, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/17/france-recalls-ambassadors-to-us-and-australia-after-aukus-pact

[14] Banerjee, Vasabjit and Benjamin Tkach. “Helping India Replace Russia in the Value Arms Market.” War on the Rocks, May 20, 2022. https://warontherocks.com/2022/05/helping-india-replace-russia-in-the-value-arms-market/

[15] “USN Fleets (2009).” Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USN_Fleets_(2009).png

[16] White House. “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” February 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf

[17] Eckstein, Megan. “SECNAV Braithwaite Calls for New U.S. 1st Fleet Near Indian, Pacific Oceans.” USNI News, November 17, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/11/17/secnav-braithwaite-calls-for-new-u-s-1st-fleet-near-indian-pacific-oceans

[18] Adlakha, Hemant. “Will the China-Pakistan-Taliban troika in Afghanistan make India irrelevant?” Hindustan Times, January 18, 2022. https://www.hindustantimes.com/ht-insight/international-affairs/will-the-china-pakistan-taliban-troika-in-afghanistan-make-india-irrelevant-101642409043057.html

[19] Dutta, Sujan. “India renews interest in running its first foreign military base in Tajikistan.” Print, October 11, 2018. https://theprint.in/defence/india-renews-interest-in-running-its-first-foreign-military-base-in-tajikistan/132454/

[20] Shih, Gerry. “In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops.” Washington Post, February 18, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html

Great Powers & Super Powers India Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers United States

Assessing the Costs of Expecting Easy Victory

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States NavyUnited States Marine Corps, and United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington MonthlyMerion West, Wisdom of Crowds, Charged AffairsBraver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, and on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Costs of Expecting Easy Victory

Date Originally Written:  April 10, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  April 25, 2022.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes American leaders’ expectation of quick victory in post-9/11 wars, and the concomitant refusal to ask for material sacrifice by the American public, undermined the ability to win those wars.

Summary:  Unlike World War II, America’s post-9/11 conflicts did not involve shared material sacrifice, such as tax increases or reducing oil use. Previous success during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and initial U.S. success in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks led then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to doubt the need for large troops deployments to Iraq. These factors left the U.S., as a whole, unprepared for the reality of post-conflict stabilization.

Text:  Like the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to widespread popular support for war[1]. In both cases, the deaths of thousands of Americans catalyzed lengthy deployments of U.S. troops overseas. However, the two eras varied widely in the extent to which Americans outside the military were asked to sacrifice to win the wars.

While 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II[2], the entirety of American society was mobilized. At least 20 million Victory Gardens supplied 40% of the country’s produce by 1944[3]. Citizens were urged to carpool to save fuel and rubber[4]. The war saw the introduction of income tax withholding, turning a tax previously limited to wealthy Americans into a way ordinary citizens funded the war effort[5].

No such ethos of sacrifice emerged after 9/11. A month after the attacks, President George W. Bush argued, “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop[6].” In 2003, President Bush signed a reduction in income tax rates[7]. Whatever the economic pros and cons of doing so, the decision to cut taxes during a war did not indicate the government intended to ask the public to sacrifice.

In the twelve years before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, major operations the U.S. led were brief and included relatively few American casualties. The 1991 Gulf War lasted six weeks, including only four days of ground combat, and fewer than 300[8] of the more than 500,000[9] Americans deployed were killed. The American-led interventions in Bosnia (lasting three weeks in 1995) and Kosovo (eleven weeks in 1999) consisted of air and missile strikes followed by deployments of NATO peacekeeping missions[10][11]. No Americans were killed in combat during the former conflict, and only two were killed in a training exercise during the latter[12]. After 9/11, the U.S. relied largely on air and missile strikes to oust the Taliban from control of Afghanistan in ten weeks; Afghan allies carried out most of the fighting on the ground[13].

Expecting a quick victory – and expecting Iraq to quickly stabilize after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was overthrown – Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Commander of U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks underestimated the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq. Before the invasion, General Eric Shinseki, then Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that stabilization would require “several hundred thousand soldiers[14].” Similarly, Middle East policy expert Kenneth Pollack argued for “two to three hundred thousand people altogether[15].” By contrast, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld expected the war to last a matter of months[16], while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki’s estimate, saying “It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in a post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself[17].”

When the invasion was launched, 145,000 U.S. troops were involved[18], along with 70,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters[19], 45,000 British troops[20], and others. A year later, the U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq numbered 162,000[21]. This proved inadequate to stabilize Iraq, particularly after the disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003[22]. Until the “surge” of 2007, in which more than 28,000 additional troops[23] were deployed, brutal fighting between Iraqi factions was rife – more than 96,000 Iraqi civilians were killed from 2003-2007[24]. More than 3,900 Americans were killed from 2003-2007[25], compared to fewer than 600 from 2008-2011[26]. Meanwhile, American popular support for the war declined, from 72% in 2003 to 43% in 2007[27].

The role of oil in the debates surrounding the Iraq war links to the lack of shared sacrifice[28][29]. From 2002 to 2006, 12% of crude oil imported[30] into the U.S. came from Saudi Arabia[31]. Analysts such as New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman argued for a large increase in the federal gasoline tax[32], which would have echoed the reduction of fuel use during World War II. However, U.S. officials did not make decreased reliance on Middle Eastern oil a Policy priority.

Fuel dependence was also a factor in American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a 2009 report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute, from 2003 to 2007, one in every 24 fuel and water resupply convoys in Afghanistan, and one in every 38 in Iraq, resulted in an American casualty[33]. But while the military has sought to reduce fossil fuel use in recent years[34], Americans at home were not asked to sacrifice for it at the height of the Iraq war.

While many factors contributed to America’s post-9/11 military struggles, one factor was the expectation of quick victory. Between underestimating the difficulty of stabilization and refusing to ask for material sacrifice by the public, American leaders were unprepared for a long struggle. This lack of preparation can serve as a lesson for leaders debating whether to fight future conflicts and preparing for difficult fights if they do.


[1] Washington Post. “Post-ABC Poll: Terrorist Attacks.” September 13, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/vault/stories/data091401.htm

[2] National World War II Museum. “WWII Veteran Statistics.” https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics

[3] Smithsonian Gardens. “Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.” https://gardens.si.edu/gardens/victory-garden/#:~:text=Roughly%20one%20half%20of%20all,by%20victory%20gardens%20by%201944

[4] Yale University. “’When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!’ U.S. Government Propaganda Poster, 1943. https://energyhistory.yale.edu/library-item/when-you-ride-alone-you-ride-hitler-us-government-propaganda-poster-1943

[5] Hill, Adriene. “How tax withholding became the norm for American workers.” Marketplace, July 31, 2017.  https://www.marketplace.org/2017/07/31/how-tax-withholding-became-norm-american-workers/

[6] C-SPAN. “Presidential News Conference.” October 11, 2001. https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4552776/user-clip-bush-shopping-quote

[7] White House. “President Bush Helped Americans Through Tax Relief.” https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/bushrecord/factsheets/taxrelief.html

[8] Defense Casualty Analysis System. “U.S. Military Casualties – Persian Gulf War Casualty Summary Desert Storm.” https://dcas.dmdc.osd.mil/dcas/pages/report_gulf_storm.xhtml

[9] U.S. Department of Defense. “Desert Storm: A Look Back.” January 11, 2019. https://www.defense.gov/News/Feature-Stories/story/Article/1728715/desert-storm-a-look-back/

[10] North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “History of the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR)

in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” https://www.nato.int/sfor/docu/d981116a.htm

[11] North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “NATO’s role in Kosovo.” https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_48818.htm

[12] BBC News. “Two die in Apache crash.” May 5, 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/335709.stm

[13] Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. War in Afghanistan: 1999 – 2021.” https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan

[14] Mills, Nicolaus. “Punished for telling truth about Iraq war.” CNN, March 20, 2013. https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/20/opinion/mills-truth-teller-iraq/index.html

[15] Lemann, Nicholas. “The Next World Order.” New Yorker, March 24, 2002. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/04/01/the-next-world-order

[16] Esterbrook, John. “Rumsfeld: It Would Be A Short War.” CBS News, November 15, 2002. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/rumsfeld-it-would-be-a-short-war/

[17] Mills, Nicolaus. “The General who Understood Iraq from the Start.” Dissent, April 25, 2008. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-general-who-understood-iraq-from-the-start

[18] Mills, March 20, 2013.

[19] Peltier, Major Isaac J. “Surrogate Warfare: The Role of U.S. Army Special

Forces.” School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2005. http://www.jezail.org/03_archive/manuals_monogrms/Surrogate_war_UW.pdf

[20] NBC News. “Britain says most troops out of Iraq by June.” December 10, 2008. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna28161917

[21] Carney, Stephen A. “Allied Participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Center for Military History, United States Army, 2011. https://history.army.mil/html/books/059/59-3-1/CMH_59-3-1.pdf

[22] Thompson, Mark. “How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS.” TIME, May 28, 2015. https://time.com/3900753/isis-iraq-syria-army-united-states-military/

[23] BBC News. “US Iraq troop surge ‘starts now.’” June 15, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6757329.stm

[24] Statista. “Number of documented civilian deaths in the Iraq war from 2003 to February 2022.” https://www.statista.com/statistics/269729/documented-civilian-deaths-in-iraq-war-since-2003/

[25] Statista. “Number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war from 2003 to 2020.”  https://www.statista.com/statistics/263798/american-soldiers-killed-in-iraq/

[26] Ibid.

[27] Pew Research Center. “Public Attitudes Toward the War in Iraq: 2003-2008.” March 19, 2008. https://www.pewresearch.org/2008/03/19/public-attitudes-toward-the-war-in-iraq-20032008/

[28] Ahmed, Nafeez. “Iraq invasion was about oil.” Guardian, March 20, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/20/iraq-war-oil-resources-energy-peak-scarcity-economy

[29] Tyagi, Tal. “The Iraq War Was Not About Oil.” Quillette, May 6, 2019. https://quillette.com/2019/05/06/the-iraq-war-was-not-about-oil/

[30] U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Imports of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products.” https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUS1&f=M

[31] U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Imports from Saudi Arabia of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products.” https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MTTIMUSSA1&f=M

[32] Friedman, Thomas L. “The Real Patriot Act.” New York Times, October 5, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/05/opinion/the-real-patriot-act.html

[33] Army Environmental Policy Institute. “Sustain the Mission Project: Casualty Factors

for Fuel and Water Resupply Convoys.” September 2009. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADB356341.pdf

[34] Gardner, Timothy. “U.S. military marches forward on green energy, despite Trump.” Reuters, March 1, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-green-energy-insight/u-s-military-marches-forward-on-green-energy-despite-trump-idUSKBN1683BL

Assessment Papers Governing Documents and Ideas Michael D. Purzycki United States

Assessing the Alignment of U.S. Diplomatic and Military Power to Forestall Armed Conflict

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, and the United States Army. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in Charged Affairs, Merion West, the Center for International Maritime Security, the Washington Monthly, Braver Angels, France 24, the Truman National Security Project, and Arc Digital. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki, and on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title: Assessing the Alignment of U.S. Diplomatic and Military Power to Forestall Armed Conflict

Date Originally Written:  August 12, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  September 20, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes an expansion of the Department of State’s Foreign Service, and closer alignment of the efforts of the Departments of State and Defense, can help the United States forestall international conflicts before they turn violent, and give the U.S. military time to modernize and prepare for future conflicts.

Summary:  Regardless of whether the U.S. maintains its military edge, unless it invests in other forms of national power, armed conflict is very likely.  Without closer alignment between the Department of State and Department of Defense, on a long enough timeline, unnecessary wars will occur.

Text:  The United States has the world’s most powerful military. The U.S. military’s budget ($778 billion in 2020, compared to $252 billion for second-largest-spender China)[1], its global reach, and the skills of its personnel[2], are unmatched. Twenty-first century conflict, however, will not always require conventional military strength to win.  While there are steps the U.S. military can take to prepare, civilian power can help forestall conflict in the meantime.

The Foreign Service includes approximately 8,000 Foreign Service Officers (FSOs)[3]. Past FSOs have included some of America’s most renowned diplomats. Perhaps most famously, George Kennan, stationed in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was one of the first observers to comprehensively analyze the Soviet threat to post-World War II peace. His 1946 “Long Telegram[4]” and 1947 “X-Article[5]” were key in forming the basis for the U.S. policy of containment throughout the Cold War.

Later FSOs perceptively analyzed the weaknesses of U.S. foreign policy. Richard Holbrooke, who would later negotiate the Dayton Accords ending the Bosnian War, began his diplomatic career as an FSO in South Vietnam, where he was skeptical that U.S. support could save the regime in Saigon[6]. In 1971, when Pakistani forces began to commit genocide during the Bangladesh War of Independence[7], FSO Archer Blood warned Washington of the massacres the American-supported Pakistani military was carrying out[8].

A large increase in the number of FSOs could give the U.S. many more diplomatic eyes and ears in potential conflict zones. More FSOs could increase the chance of the U.S. brokering peace deals between warring parties, or of better judging early on whether a conflict is one the U.S. military should stay out of. Early involvement by diplomats could preempt later involvement by troops.

Even with a much larger Foreign Service, there is still a chance the U.S. will be drawn into conflict. The foreign policy goals of Russia and China, powers not content to live in a U.S.-dominated international system, may overwhelm attempts to keep the peace. Nonetheless, an investment in diplomatic power, in building relationships with other countries’ leaders and policymakers, could pay off in the form of wars avoided.

Closer collaboration between the diplomatic and military arms of U.S. power would also have benefits. Even if the U.S. chooses to have a less militarized foreign policy, reducing the military’s absolute strength need not be the solution. Ensuring that diplomats and military commanders work closely together, and making clear that U.S. policymakers do not inherently favor one over the other, could increase the relative strength of civilian power without weakening the military. 

Both the Department of State (DoS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) divide the world into six regions (see first map below) for their operations[9]. DoS activities in each region are directed by an assistant secretary, while each DOD regional combatant command is headed by a four-star general or admiral. Additionally, the world’s oceans are divided among the U.S. Navy’s numbered fleets, some of whose boundaries correspond to those of the combatant commands (see second map below)[10]. However, DoS and DoD regions are not always aligned with each other. Aligning them, by shifting countries between regions, could better integrate civilian and military power.


For example, of the countries in DoS’ Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCAA), those with coastlines are in DoD’s U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) and the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet – except for Pakistan in U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), whose coast is under the 5th Fleet. Meanwhile, the Navy has discussed bringing back its deactivated 1st Fleet and giving it responsibility for part of the Indian Ocean[11].

Suppose 1st Fleet were established under the aegis of USINDOPACOM (as 7th Fleet currently is), and were to align with the coasts of the SCAA countries. Pakistan could move from USCENTCOM to USINDOPACOM, and from the 5th to the 1st Fleet. When DoS officials needed to work closely with DoD officials with regard to, for example, India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed states with a rivalry dating back to their creation in 1947 — there would be one combatant commander and one Navy flag officer for them to communicate with, not two of each.

Similarly, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia could be moved from U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) to USCENTCOM, which already includes Egypt. This would align the DoS and DoD maps of North Africa as all five North African countries are currently in DoS’ Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Egypt, a long-time ally of the U.S. and a recipient of more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid annually[12], has taken sides in such events as the recent civil war in Libya[13] and domestic political turmoil in Tunisia[14]. If the U.S. wanted to leverage its relationship with Egypt to resolve conflicts in North Africa, it could benefit from such overlap between DoS and DoD.

Changes like these will be limited in what they can accomplish. For example, if part of the Indian Ocean is allocated to 1st Fleet, the southern boundary of the fleet’s waters will still have to be drawn. Furthermore, USINDOPACOM is already geographically large, and already includes three of the world’s four most populous countries: China, India, and Indonesia[15]. Adding Pakistan, the fifth most populous country [16], could stretch its burdens beyond the ability of its officers to manage them. Nevertheless, if this or similar changes increase collaboration between DoS and DoD, enabling the U.S. to better manage crises and avoid deployments of U.S. forces to conflict zones, they are worthy of consideration.

With the American public weary of extended overseas military deployments, and U.S. President Joseph Biden seeking to maintain America’s global power status without straining financial and military resources, a larger Foreign Service and a DoS in sync with DoD are worth discussing.


[1] Statista. “Countries with the highest military spending worldwide in 2020.” https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/

[2] Greer, Col. Jim, U.S. Army (Ret.). “Training: The Foundation for Success in Combat.” Heritage Foundation, October 4, 2018. https://www.heritage.org/military-strength-topical-essays/2019-essays/training-the-foundation-success-combat

[3] Nutter, Julie. “The Foreign Service by the Numbers.” Foreign Service Journal, January/February 2020. https://afsa.org/foreign-service-numbers

[4] Wilson Center. “George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram.’” February 22, 1946. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116178.pdf

[5] Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State. “Kennan and Containment, 1947.” https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/kennan

[6] Isaacson, Walter. “Richard Holbrooke, the Last Great Freewheeling Diplomat.” New York Times, May 9, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/books/review/george-packer-our-man-richard-holbrooke-biography.html

[7] Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 16, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/genocide-us-cant-remember-bangladesh-cant-forget-180961490/

[8] Barry, Ellen. “To U.S. in ’70s, a Dissenting Diplomat. To Bangladesh, ‘a True Friend.’” New York Times, June 27, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/world/asia/bangladesh-archer-blood-cable.html

[9] “Joint Guide for Interagency Doctrine.” Joint Chiefs of Staff, November 4, 2019. https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/Interorganizational_Documents/jg_ia.pdf?ver=2020-02-03-151039-500

[10] “USN Fleets (2009).” Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USN_Fleets_(2009).png

[11] Eckstein, Megan. “SECNAV Braithwaite Calls for New U.S. 1st Fleet Near Indian, Pacific Oceans.” USNI News, November 17, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/11/17/secnav-braithwaite-calls-for-new-u-s-1st-fleet-near-indian-pacific-oceans

[12] Project on Middle East Democracy. “Fact Sheet – U.S. Military Assistance to Egypt: Separating Fact from Fiction.” July 2020. https://pomed.org/fact-sheet-u-s-military-assistance-to-egypt-separating-fact-from-fiction/

[13] Harchaoui, Jalel. “The Pendulum: How Russia Sways Its Way to More Influence in Libya.” War on the Rocks, January 7, 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/the-pendulum-how-russia-sways-its-way-to-more-influence-in-libya/

[14] Saied, Mohamed. “Cairo backs Tunisian president’s actions against Brotherhood.” Al-Monitor, August 10, 2021. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/cairo-backs-tunisian-presidents-actions-against-brotherhood

[15] “Population, total.” World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?most_recent_value_desc=true

[16] Ibid

Assessment Papers Defense and Military Reform Diplomacy Governing Documents and Ideas Major Regional Contingency Michael D. Purzycki United States

Organizing for Large-Scale Maritime Combat Operations

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked as a communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps and a technical writer for the Department of the Navy. In addition to Divergent Options, he has been published in Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy), Merion West, Braver Angels, the Washington Monthly, France 24, the Truman National Security Project, and Arc Digital. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://mdpurzycki.medium.com/. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  China and Russia pose threats to U.S. interests and allies. While the Biden administration seeks to deemphasize military force relative to other aspects of U.S. power, only a credible deterrence, including an appropriately sized and based maritime capability, can enable maximal use of America’s non-military strengths.

Date Originally Written:  April 16, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  May 3, 2021. 

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of U.S. policymakers who seek to prepare the United States for the maritime aspect of large-scale combat operations with China and/or Russia. These policymakers are constrained by limited industrial and shipyard capacities, a shortage of Americans fit to serve, and probable cuts to military spending.

Background:  The U.S. defense industrial base is in decline[1]. The Navy’s public shipyards are unable to meet its repair needs[2][3]. The COVID-19 pandemic made nearly a quarter of the shipyards’ workforce “unable to come in to work due to being deemed ‘high risk[4].’” Data released by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2017 found 71% of Americans ages 17 to 24 would not qualify for military service, largely due to obesity, inadequate education, and criminal records[5]. Defense spending is likely to fall in the coming years. All these problems curtail the Navy and Marine Corps’ ability to respond quickly to emerging threats and crises. 

Greater use of unmanned vessels offers a partial solution to manning problems. However, unmanned technology is still in its early stages, and the rapid cost increases of the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship are warnings not to scale up any major system too quickly[6][7]. 

Significance:  While increased investment by European and Indo-Pacific allies in their own militaries would greatly help the U.S., basing more U.S. vessels in allied ports would make clear America’s commitment to its allies’ security. Meanwhile, the stated wish of Commandant of the Marine Corps General David H. Berger to reduce reliance on “legacy” systems and large numbers of personnel provides an opportunity to experiment with smaller, more mobile Marine units[8].

Option #1:  The U.S. bases more vessels at locations closer to its great power competitors, and seeks new ports to host them.

Risk:  Increasing the number of U.S. vessels close to China and/or Russia may increase the sense of insecurity both countries feel. China and/or Russia may respond by attempting to base their own vessels in the Western Hemisphere. The March 2021 case of Argentina refusing a U.S. Coast Guard cutter the right to dock in its ports illustrates China’s influence in the South Atlantic: China has made major investments in Argentina’s energy and transportation infrastructure, and a Chinese company operates Brazil’s second-largest container port[9]. The fact that Argentina and Brazil are both Major Non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Allies (MNNAs) of the U.S. does not mean they will not align with China on certain issues; Pakistan, also an MNNA, has long been a military partner of China due to the countries’ shared rivalry with India[10].

Increased forward basing may strain the Navy in some ways. In his award-winning 2018 essay for Proceedings, “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” Captain Dale Rielage details how the U.S. could lose a major conflict in part by increasing forward deployment of vessels without maintaining enough vessels at home[11]. The importance of the total number of each type of vessel must not be forgotten.

Gain:  A greater number of vessels at a greater number of bases near China and Russia would give the U.S. more flexibility in responding to challenges. A 2017 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments suggested South Korea and the United Kingdom as possible new locations, as well as increasing the number of ships based in Guam, Japan, and Spain[12]. The announcement in 2020 that USS Hershel WoodyWilliams would be based in Souda Bay makes Greece another potential host[13].

Increased forward basing at more locations also provides a hedge against possible threats to U.S. overseas bases from criticism and discontent by locals. For example, local opposition to the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa[14] has influenced the decision to move some Marine units based there to Guam[15]. If, to take one hypothetical example, Spanish political and public opinion turned against the presence of U.S. guided missile destroyers in Rota, Spain, then Souda Bay could provide an alternative location (although this, in turn, could strain already tense U.S.-Turkish relations)[16].

Option #2:  The Marine Corps reduces the size of its Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs).

Risk:  Depending on what sorts of conflict a MEU is deployed to, a smaller MEU may be less well suited than a larger one. Even if tanks are not necessary, it is plausible that, if a MEU’s Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) includes an LHA or LHD with fighters, it will fare better in a particular scenario than if it had come without fighters.

Gain:  With General Berger seeking to divest all the Marine Corps’ tanks and reduce its reliance on large vessels for amphibious operations[17], a smaller MEU, either in Marine Corps manpower or in the size of the ARG, is worth exploring. Fewer Marines, perhaps carried on fewer ships and aircraft, could deploy more quickly, making it easier for the U.S. to respond to crises. Scaling down the MEU so all its personnel and equipment could fit on one or two amphibious transport docks[18] could also free up amphibious assault ships, specifically the LHA/LHD, to serve as “lightning carriers,” giving the U.S. another option for sea-based airstrikes in addition to large aircraft carriers[19].

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Tadjdeh, Yasmin. “Report Finds U.S. Defense Industrial Base in Decline.” National Defense, February 5, 2020. https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2020/2/5/defense-industrial-base-earns-c-grade-in-new-report

[2] Hooper, Craig. “The US Needs a New Public Shipyard.” Defense One, January 16, 2019. https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2019/01/us-needs-new-public-shipyard/154221/

[3] Weisberger, Marcus. “As Navy Pushes for More Ships, Experts Warn Repair Yards Are Crumbling.” Defense One, September 30, 2020. https://www.defenseone.com/business/2020/09/navy-pushes-more-ships-experts-warn-repair-yards-are-crumbling/168905/

[4] Werner, Ben. “Navy Calling Up 1,600 Reservists to Fill in For Shipyard Workers Out for COVID-19.” USNI News, June 11, 2020. https://news.usni.org/2020/06/11/navy-calling-up-1600-reservists-to-fill-in-for-shipyard-workers-out-for-covid-19

[5] Heritage Foundation. “The Looming National Security Crisis: Young Americans Unable to Serve in the Military.” February 13, 2018. https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/the-looming-national-security-crisis-young-americans-unable-serve-the-military

[6] Insinna, Valerie. “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program.” New York Times, August 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/magazine/f35-joint-strike-fighter-program.html

[7] Roblin, Sébastien. “The Navy spent $30B and 16 years to fight Iran with a littoral combat ship that doesn’t work.” NBC News, July 19, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/navy-spent-30b-16-years-fight-iran-littoral-combat-ship-ncna1031806

[8] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps.” https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700

[9] Espach, Ralph. “A New Great Game Finds the South Atlantic.” War on the Rocks, March 22, 2021. https://warontherocks.com/2021/03/a-new-great-game-finds-the-south-atlantic/

[10] Blank, Jonah. “Pakistan and China’s Almost Alliance.” RAND Corporation, October 16, 2015. https://www.rand.org/blog/2015/10/pakistan-and-chinas-almost-alliance.html

[11] Rielage, Captain Dale, U.S. Navy. “How We Lost the Great Pacific War.” Proceedings, May 2018. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/may/how-we-lost-great-pacific-war

[12] Clark, Bryan, Peter Haynes, Jesse Sloman, Timothy A. Walton. “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 9, 2017. https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/restoring-american-seapower-a-new-fleet-architecture-for-the-united-states-

[13] Becatoros, Elena (The Associated Press), and Derek Gatopoulos (Associated Press). “Pompeo says USS Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams will be based at Souda Bay.” Navy Times, September 29, 2020. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2020/09/29/pompeo-says-uss-hershel-woody-williams-will-be-based-at-souda-bay/

[14] Congressional Research Service. “U.S. Military Presence on Okinawa and Realignment to Guam.” April 9, 2019. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10672/3

[15] United States Marine Corps. “Marine Corps Activates Camp Blaz in Guam.” October 1, 2020. https://www.marines.mil/News/News-Display/Article/2367980/marine-corps-activates-camp-blaz-in-guam/

[16] Jakes, Lara. “U.S. Will Base Mammoth Ship in Greece, Near Disputed Territory.” New York Times, October 1, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/us/politics/greece-turkey-us-navy.html

[17] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps.”

[18] Waddell, Major Joshua C., U.S. Marine Corps. “Rethink the MEU for Tomorrow’s Expeditionary Operations.” Proceedings, April 2020. https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/april/rethink-meu-tomorrows-expeditionary-operations

[19] Eckstein, Megan. “Marines Test ‘Lightning Carrier’ Concept, Control 13 F-35Bs from Multiple Amphibs.” USNI News, October 23, 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/10/23/marines-test-lightning-carrier-concept-control-13-f-35bs-from-multiple-amphibs

China (People's Republic of China) Deterrence Major Regional Contingency Maritime Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers Russia United States

Cold War Transferability, or Not: Assessing Industrial Constraints and Naval Power After Long Land Wars

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, France 24, and Arc Digital. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Cold War Transferability or Not: Assessing Industrial Constraints and Naval Power After Long Land Wars

Date Originally Written:  February 10, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  March 21, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes the role of naval power to the United States in confronting China in the 2020s is similar to its role in confronting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. He also sees economic and geopolitical similarities between the two eras.

Summary:  U.S. policymakers can learn from the last decade of the Cold War as they consider how to respond to China’s military, geopolitical, and economic ambitions. There are significant similarities between America’s situation forty years ago and its situation today, especially regarding manufacturing, trade, the defense industrial base (DIB), the exhaustion of U.S. land forces, and the importance of naval strength.

Text:  The United States in the 2020s finds itself in a position in relation to China similar to its position in relation to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have soured most Americans on extended land conflicts, much as the Vietnam War had by its conclusion in 1975. Likewise, U.S. worries about an aggressive and revisionist Chinese foreign policy (territorial claims in the South China Sea, harassment of Japanese vessels, attacks on Indian troops) parallel worries about Soviet foreign policy four decades ago (invasion of Afghanistan, continued grip on Eastern Europe, support for militant leftist forces like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Farabundo Martí National Libération Front or FMLN in El Salvador). In both cases, there are reasons to worry armed conflict will break out between the U.S. and its rival power.

However, there are also differences. While China’s military threat to U.S. interests parallels the Soviet Union’s, China’s economic position differs greatly. The Soviet economy in the 1980s was stagnant[1]. China, on the other hand, while it faces long-term economic challenges, has enjoyed decades of rapid growth[2]. China’s wealth has allowed it not only to greatly expand its military, but also to engage in economic statecraft on a massive scale, most notably through the Belt and Road Initiative.

In some regards, the U.S. faces economic difficulties today similar to those of forty years ago, including ways that affect national security. The loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in the 21st century[3] has, among other effects, weakened the DIB[4][5]. Similarly, defense experts in the early 1980s expressed concern that America’s manufacturing sector would be unable to meet the military’s needs[6].

The reasons for America’s manufacturing struggles, however, are different now, as is the relationship between those struggles and America’s geopolitical concerns. Four decades ago, America’s main economic rivals were military allies, Japan and West Germany. While there were several reasons for the relative decline of U.S. manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, one was the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to friendly countries (partly as a result of U.S. trade policy)[7]. While the U.S.-Chinese economic rivalry now is somewhat similar to U.S.-Japanese rivalry then, it is one thing for American jobs to go to an ally, and another for them to go to a potential foe.

China’s gains relative to the U.S., unlike Japan’s, have been both military and economic. And while Japan’s economic boom after World War II was possible because it enjoyed U.S. military protection[8], factors in China’s rise have included U.S. policy (the granting of Permanent Normal Trade Relations in 2000, paving the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization)[9], and hostile actions (forcing U.S. companies to share intellectual property with the Chinese government, or else simply stealing it)[10][11], as well as Beijing’s policies of national development.

The perceived shortfalls of the DIB forty years ago led some observers to emphasize U.S. naval power as the most efficient, effective way to check a possible Soviet attack[12]. With the U.S. Army dispirited after the Vietnam War, and the Red Army strengthening its presence and power in Eastern Europe[13], a greater reliance on naval power made sense. While this emphasis on U.S. naval power was coupled with a Western misperception of Soviet naval intentions – the U.S. expected the Soviet Navy to venture far from home during a war, which it did not plan to do[14] – America’s historic position as a maritime nation positioned it well for a reliance on maritime might.

Similarly, the stresses places on U.S. land forces by nearly two decades of war in the greater Middle East lend weight to the idea of emphasizing naval strength when confronting China. Also, the difference in the nature of America’s treaty allies (i.e., North Atlantic Treaty Organization members directly bordering the Warsaw Pact compared to Japan and the Philippines near China but offshore) makes naval preeminence sensible. The fact that the Pacific is wider and takes longer to cross from the continental United States than the Atlantic is also a driving force.

Then as now, there are different schools of thought as to what precise shape the U.S. Navy should take. Proposals for a 355-ship navy, and then a 500-ship navy, put forward in the past few years parallel U.S. President Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship navy. However, an attempt at a rapid buildup has downsides. The huge increases in the costs of the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship illustrate the perils of trying to buy too much, too quickly[15][16].

Convinced that the DIB’s weakness in the early 1980s would not allow the U.S. to overwhelm the Soviets with conventional forces in a war, some defense observers, such as U.S. Senator Gary Hart, sought to emphasize Maneuver Warfare, with the goal of outthinking the Soviets[17]. The Maneuver Warfare camp worried about a U.S. overreliance on large aircraft carriers, and suggested complementing them with smaller carriers[18]. This is strikingly similar to former Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer’s talk of using America-class amphibious assault ships as “lightning carriers[19].” A 2017 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments also recommended construction of small carriers (CVLs) and continued building of larger ones[20]. The Navy’s decision to decommission the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard after its damage by a fire, combined with Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger’s expressed interest in deemphasizing the Marines’ reliance on large ships for amphibious operations, provide an opportunity to put the lightning carrier concept to the test[21].

As the Biden administration considers how to approach the challenge of China, it can learn from a past period of superpower rivalry, but must also bear differences between the two eras in mind. 


[1] Trachtenberg, Marc. “Assessing Soviet Economic Performance During the Cold War: A Failure of Intelligence?” Texas National Security Review, February 2018. https://tnsr.org/2018/02/assessing-soviet-economic-performance-cold-war/

[2] Purdy, Mark. “China’s Economy, in Six Charts.” Harvard Business Review, November 29, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/11/chinas-economy-in-six-charts#:~:text=China’s%20economy%20has%20entered%20a,China’s%20GDP%E2%80%9D%20chart%20below)

[3] Long, Heather. “U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000.” CNN Business, March 29, 2016. https://money.cnn.com/2016/03/29/news/economy/us-manufacturing-jobs/

[4] Herman, Arthur. “Bringing the Factories Home.” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2020. https://www.hudson.org/research/16236-bringing-the-factories-home

[5] Tadjdeh, Yasmin. “Report Finds U.S. Defense Industrial Base in Decline.” National Defense, February 5, 2020. https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2020/2/5/defense-industrial-base-earns-c-grade-in-new-report

[6] Rothenberg, Randall. The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, pp. 114-120. https://www.amazon.com/neoliberals-Creating-new-American-politics/dp/0671458817

[7] Atkinson, Robert D. and Michael Lind. “National Developmentalism: From Forgotten Tradition to New Consensus.” American Affairs, Summer 2019. https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2019/05/national-developmentalism-from-forgotten-tradition-to-new-consensus/

[8] Ibid

[9] Salam, Reihan. “Normalizing Trade Relations With China Was a Mistake.” Atlantic, June 8, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/06/normalizing-trade-relations-with-china-was-a-mistake/562403/

[10] Shane, Daniel. “How China gets what it wants from American companies.” CNN Business, April 5, 2018. https://money.cnn.com/2018/04/05/news/economy/china-foreign-companies-restrictions/index.html

[11] Rosenbaum, Eric. “1 in 5 corporations say China has stolen their IP within the last year: CNBC CFO survey.” CNBC, March 1, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/28/1-in-5-companies-say-china-stole-their-ip-within-the-last-year-cnbc.html

[12] Rothenberg, pp. 114-120

[13] Federation of American Scientists. “Soviet Military Power: Chapter III – Theater Forces.” 1984. https://fas.org/irp/dia/product/smp_84_ch3.htm

[14] Alman, David. “Convoy Escort: The Navy’s Forgotten (Purpose) Mission.” War on the Rocks, December 30, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/convoy-escort-the-navys-forgotten-purpose-mission

[15] Insinna, Valerie. “Inside America’s Dysfunctional Trillion-Dollar Fighter-Jet Program.” New York Times, August 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/21/magazine/f35-joint-strike-fighter-program.html

[16] Roblin, Sébastien. “The Navy spent $30B and 16 years to fight Iran with a littoral combat ship that doesn’t work.” NBC News, July 19, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/navy-spent-30b-16-years-fight-iran-littoral-combat-ship-ncna1031806

[17] Rothenberg, pp. 114-120

[18] Ibid

[19] Eckstein, Megan. “Marines Test ‘Lightning Carrier’ Concept, Control 13 F-35Bs from Multiple Amphibs.” USNI News, October 23, 2019. https://news.usni.org/2019/10/23/marines-test-lightning-carrier-concept-control-13-f-35bs-from-multiple-amphibs

[20] Clark, Bryan, Peter Haynes, Jesse Sloman, Timothy A. Walton. “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 9, 2017. https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/restoring-american-seapower-a-new-fleet-architecture-for-the-united-states-

[21] “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps.” https://www.hqmc.marines.mil/Portals/142/Docs/%2038th%20Commandant%27s%20Planning%20Guidance_2019.pdf?ver=2019-07-16-200152-700

Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Cold War Economic Factors Maritime Michael D. Purzycki United States

Options for Altering Global Energy Developments to America’s Advantage and China’s Disadvantage

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, France 24, and Arc Digital. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The United States devotes considerable military resources to the Persian Gulf despite significantly reduced reliance on the region’s oil, while China buys more Gulf oil than the U.S. does.

Date Originally Written:  July 27, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  October 7, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of U.S. policymakers who wish to indirectly increase economic and military burdens on the People’s Republic of China, in ways that benefit the United States and do not lead to armed conflict.

Background:  The United States has drastically reduced its reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf over the last decade, as the U.S. has become the world’s largest producer of crude oil[1]. China purchases significantly more oil from Saudi Arabia, the world’s second largest producer and the largest producer in the Gulf, than the U.S. does[2]. However, the U.S. still expends considerable military and financial resources in the Gulf, part of the estimated $81 billion per year it devotes to protecting global oil supplies[3]. Meanwhile, as demand for electric cars increases in response to climate change, China’s share of global electric vehicle production is double that of the U.S.[4].

Significance:  While there are multiple reasons for the U.S. presence in the Gulf region, such as deterring Iranian aggression and combatting terrorism, every ship, aircraft, vehicle and service member not protecting oil is one that can be deployed elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, despite the increase in oil prices that would likely result from more vulnerable oil supplies, an incentive to develop alternatives to petroleum would be a positive aspect, given climate change.

Option #1:  The United States ceases to deploy naval vessels to the Persian Gulf.

Risk:  A reduced military presence in the Gulf would increase the vulnerability of oil supplies to attacks by Iran, its proxies, and terrorist organizations, and will likely lead to a rise in global oil prices[5]. Saudi Arabia will fear the U.S. is abandoning it, and may begin developing nuclear weapons to guard against the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Countries that rely more heavily on Gulf oil than the U.S. does – not only U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, but China’s rival India – may be harmed economically by less secure oil[6].

Gain:  Ceasing to deploy vessels to the Gulf leaves more vessels available for the U.S. to use in the Asia-Pacific. A risk of greater instability in the Gulf may lead China to expand its current naval presence in the region, leaving fewer vessels available elsewhere[7]. U.S. vessels would no longer be vulnerable to attacks by Iranian forces. Chillier U.S.-Saudi relations will loosen America’s connection to the aggressive and brutal regime of Mohammad bin Salman, improving America’s moral position[8]. Meanwhile, given petroleum’s contribution to climate change, a rise in oil prices can be embraced as an incentive to reduce reliance on oil, regardless of its source.

Option #2:  The United States prohibits oil exports to China in concert with withdrawal from the Gulf, and steers additional oil exports to major importers of Gulf oil, compensating them for Gulf oil’s increased vulnerability.

Risk:  Embargoing crude oil would likely stall or end negotiations for a U.S.-China trade deal[9]. Furthermore, the U.S. is a relatively minor source of oil for China, meaning the impact of an embargo will likely be weak[10]. China may also retaliate with new and/or higher tariffs on U.S. exports. Also, even with additional imports of U.S. oil, America’s trading partners may still endure a negative economic impact from higher oil prices during a global recession.

Gain:  If compensatory exports of U.S. oil are proportionate to a country’s purchases of Gulf oil, the largest beneficiaries would likely be Japan, South Korea and India (respectively the first, third and fifth largest purchasers of Saudi oil)[2]. The first two have deep, long-lasting economic and defense relationships with the U.S., while India is a potential counterweight to Chinese hegemonic ambitions in Asia. Thus compensatory oil supplies could link these countries close to the U.S. in a multilateral effort to tie China’s hands regarding Gulf oil.

Option #3:  The United States partners with countries importing Gulf oil to develop alternatives to petroleum products, and pointedly excludes China from the partnership. Public policies to this end can include increased investment in clean energy research and development, and initiatives to produce more electric cars at lower prices, as well as car charging stations powered by non-fossil energy.

Risk:  China might portray itself as a victim if it is excluded from international efforts to reduce fossil fuel use. This option might also portray the U.S. as not serious about climate change, arguing that if the U.S. really wanted to solve the problem it would cooperate with any country, including China.

Gain:  Participation in multinational efforts to reduce petroleum use would position the U.S. as a leader in the fight against climate change. U.S. clean energy development lags behind China’s, and during a global recession, a major stimulus of clean energy technology, including in the transportation sector, would provide economic and environmental benefits[11]. If, as with Option #2, America’s primary partners are Japan, South Korea and India, it will be collaborating with countries that are home to car manufacturers listed on the Global 500, companies well-positioned to benefit from an electric car boom[12].

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] “What countries are the top producers and consumers of oil?” U.S. Energy Information Administration, April 1, 2020.

[2] Stevens, Harry, Lauren Tierney, Adrian Blanco and Laris Karklis. “Who buys Saudi Arabia’s oil?” Washington Post, September 16, 2019.

[3] “The Military Cost of Defending the Global Oil Supply.” Securing America’s Future Energy, September 21, 2018.

[4] Bledsoe, Paul. “New Ideas for a Do Something Congress No. 7: Winning the Global Race on Electric Cars.” Progressive Policy Institute, April 1, 2019.

[5] Cordesman, Anthony H. “The Strategic Threat from Iranian Hybrid Warfare in the Gulf.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 13, 2019.

[6] “Iraq continues to be India’s top oil supplier, imports from US rises 4-folds.” Economic Times, May 1, 2019.

[7] Eckstein, Megan. “5th Fleet CO: China Laying Groundwork in Middle East to Pose Future Threats; International Coalitions Pushing Back Against Iran.” USNI News, July 23, 2020.

[8] Editorial Board. “One year later, our murdered friend Jamal has been proved right.” Washington Post, September 30, 2019.

[9] Swanson, Ana and Keith Bradsher. “Once a Source of U.S.-China Tension, Trade Emerges as an Area of Calm.” New York Times, July 25, 2020.

[10] “China’s crude oil imports surpassed 10 million barrels per day in 2019.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 23, 2020.

[11] Bledsoe, Paul. “Jumpstarting U.S. Clean Energy Manufacturing in Economic Stimulus and Infrastructure Legislation.” Progressive Policy Institute, May 2020.

[12] “Global 500: Motor Vehicles & Parts.” Fortune, 2019.

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest Below Established Threshold Activities (BETA) China (People's Republic of China) Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers Resource Scarcity United States

Alternative History: An Assessment of the Long-Term Impact of U.S. Strikes on Syria in 2013 on the Viability of the Free Syrian Army

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst, writer and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps. He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Braver Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Alternative History: An Assessment of the Long-Term Impact of U.S. Strikes on Syria in 2013 on the Viability of the Free Syrian Army

Date Originally Written:  June 9, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 29, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article presumes that the United States launched air and missile strikes on Syria in August 2013, in response to the use of chemical weapons against civilians by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. It is written from the perspective of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) for an audience of U.S. national security policymakers.

Summary:  One year after U.S. air and missile strikes in Syria, a stalemate exists  between the Assad regime and rebel groups. While Assad is far from defeated, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) held its own, thanks to U.S. assistance, and positions itself as a viable political alternative to both Assad and the Islamic State (IS). This stance is tenuous, however, and is threatened by both continued bombardment by regime forces and the international community’s focus on defeating IS.

Text:  On August 21, 2013, the Syrian military fired rockets containing sarin gas at civilian areas in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, as well as conventionally armed rockets at Western Ghouta. Estimates of the resulting death toll range from 281 (estimated by French intelligence[1]) to 1,729 (alleged by the FSA[2]). A preliminary U.S. Intelligence Community estimate, released nine days after the attacks, “determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children[3].”

After receiving the IC’s estimate, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air and missile strikes against Assad regime command and control centers, and bases from which helicopters are deployed[4]. While the combined strikes did not curtail the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons, they impeded communication between units armed with chemical weapons and their commanders, and reduced the use of barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters. Assad concluded that the benefits of further use of chemical weapons did not outweigh the costs of possible further U.S. or French strikes.

Instead of using chemical weapons, Assad continued his use of conventional weapons against his opponents, including civilians. For example, in November and December 2013, as government forces attempted to break a stalemate with rebels in Aleppo, government air strikes killed up to 425 civilians, of whom 204 were killed in a four-day period[6]. While the FSA has fought capably on the ground against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), its fighters and the civilians they protect remain vulnerable to air strikes.

In January 2014, President Obama expanded Timber Sycamore, the supply of weapons and training to Syrian rebels by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)[7]. In addition to providing greater numbers of rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-tank missiles, the CIA provided rebels with a limited number of man-portable air defense systems. While the rebels have repeatedly asked for more of these antiaircraft systems, the U.S. has declined to provide them, due to fears of them ending up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) or other extremists[8]. Thus, while the FSA has shot down several regime warplanes, fighter aircraft have largely continued to operate unimpeded over rebel-held territory.

The U.S. and France have launched strikes against SAA command and control locations on three additional occasions in the last year. While these strikes have not significantly curbed the regime’s use of conventional weapons, they have slowed the pace at which regime forces can plan and carry out their attacks. This slowing pace has enabled the FSA to better prepare for upcoming attacks, and thus reduce the number of deaths both among their ranks and among nearby civilians.

While fighting between the regime and the FSA has continued, IS has emerged over the past year as the primary extremist organization opposing Assad. In addition to its capture of large swaths of Iraq, including the city of Mosul in June 2014[9], it controls portions of northern, central and eastern Syria[10]. While IS’ former partner Jabhat al-Nusra remains focused on fighting the Assad regime, IS’ goal is the perpetuation of an Islamist proto-state, where it can govern in accordance with its extremely strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam.

The strength of IS has benefited Assad; he has cited IS’s extreme brutality as evidence that he must remain in power and crush his opponents, making no distinction between IS, the FSA, or any other force opposing the regime. The international community’s focus on defeating IS in Iraq gives Assad more opportunities to target his non-IS opponents. While it is in the U.S. interest to play a leading role in dislodging IS from its strongholds in Iraq, it risks losing influence over the Syrian opposition if it does not continue its actions in Syria. The FSA may look to other actors, such as Saudi Arabia, to help it fight Assad if it feels it is being ignored by the U.S.[11]

U.S. support, including air and missile strikes, has helped the FSA endure in the face of regime attacks. However, Syria’s non-extremist opposition faces considerable challenges. While IS’ extreme governance model of what a post-Assad Syria might look like is imposing, and is attracting thousands of foreign fighters[12], the FSA’s potential democratic and pluralist model has not inspired to the same extent. The vulnerability of the FSA and the areas it holds to regime air strikes is a significant weakness. If the U.S. insists that Assad must not be allowed to remain in power[13], he is likely to focus his attacks on the FSA, potentially overwhelming it, while leaving the U.S.-led coalition to fight IS.


[1] “Syria/Syrian chemical programme – National executive summary of declassified intelligence.” Ministre de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, September 3, 2013. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/Syrian_Chemical_Programme.pdf

[2] “Bodies still being found after alleged Syria chemical attack: opposition.” Daily Star, August 22, 2013 http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Aug-22/228268-bodies-still-being-found-after-alleged-syria-chemical-attack-opposition.ashx

[3] “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013.” White House, August 30, 2013 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/30/government-assessment-syrian-government-s-use-chemical-weapons-august-21

[4] Shanker, Thom, C. J. Chivers and Michael R. Gordon. “Obama Weighs ‘Limited’ Strikes Against Syrian Forces.” New York Times, August 27, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/world/middleeast/obama-syria-strike.html

[5] Walt, Vivienne. “France’s Case for Military Action in Syria.” TIME, August 31, 2013. https://world.time.com/2013/08/31/frances-case-for-military-action-in-syria

[6] “Syria: Dozens of Government Attacks in Aleppo.” Human Rights Watch, December 21, 2013. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/21/syria-dozens-government-attacks-aleppo

[7] Mazzetti, Mark, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt. “Behind the Sudden Death of a $1 Billion Secret C.I.A. War in Syria.” New York Times, August 2, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/middleeast/cia-syria-rebel-arm-train-trump.html

[8] Seldin, Jeff and Jamie Dettmer. “Advanced Weapons May Reach Syrian Rebels Despite US Concerns.” Voice of America, October 26, 2015. https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/advanced-weapons-may-reach-syrian-rebels-despite-us-concerns

[9] Sly, Liz and Ahmed Ramadan. “Insurgents seize Iraqi city of Mosul as security forces flee.” Washington Post, June 10, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/insurgents-seize-iraqi-city-of-mosul-as-troops-flee/2014/06/10/21061e87-8fcd-4ed3-bc94-0e309af0a674_story.html

[10] Gilsinan, Kathy. “The Many Ways to Map the Islamic ‘State.’” Atlantic, August 27, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-many-ways-to-map-the-islamic-state/379196

[11] Chivers, C.J. and Eric Schmitt. “Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms.” New York Times, February 25, 2013.

[12] Karadsheh, Jomana, Jim Sciutto and Laura Smith-Spark. “How foreign fighters are swelling ISIS ranks in startling numbers.” CNN, September 14, 2014. https://www.cnn.com/2014/09/12/world/meast/isis-numbers/index.html

[13] Wroughton, Lesley and Missy Ryan. “U.S. insists Assad must go, but expects he will stay.” Reuters, June 1, 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-syria/u-s-insists-assad-must-go-but-expects-he-will-stay-idINKBN0EC1FE20140601

Alternative Futures / Alternative Histories / Counterfactuals Assessment Papers Michael D. Purzycki Syria United States

Options for a Consistent U.S. Approach to Humanitarian Intervention

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst and writer based in Arlington, Virginia.  He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps.  He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Better Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.  He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of mass violence lead to destabilizing refugee flows and constitute humanitarian catastrophes.

Date Originally Written:  February 15, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  February 24, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the United States government.

Background:  The United States’ responses to episodes of mass killing in recent decades have been inconsistent. The U.S. has intervened militarily in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. It has declined to intervene in Rwanda, Darfur and Syria (prior to the conflict against the Islamic State). This inconsistency calls into question American moral and geopolitical leadership, and creates an opening for rivals, especially China and Russia, to fill. America’s decision not to respond with military force when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people arguably emboldened Assad’s ally Russia.  Following this U.S. non-response Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 that have committed multiple atrocities, including intentional bombing of hospitals[1]. Meanwhile, massive flows of refugees from Syria, as well as from other Middle Eastern and African countries, have destabilized Europe politically, empowering demagogues and weakening European cohesion. Climate change is likely to exacerbate existing conflicts, and make massacres and refugee flows more common[2].

Significance:  From a strategic perspective, sudden massive inflows of refugees destabilize allies and weaken host country populations’ confidence in international institutions. From a moral perspective, the refusal of the U.S. to stop mass killing when it is capable of doing so threatens American moral credibility, and afflicts the consciences of those who could have intervened but did not, as in Rwanda[3]. From a perspective that is both strategic and moral, non-intervention in cases where U.S. and allied force can plausibly halt massacres, as in Bosnia before August 1995, makes the U.S. and its allies look weak, undermining the credibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other security institutions[4].

Option #1:  The U.S. adopts a policy of humanitarian intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. government could adopt a de facto policy of intervening in humanitarian crises when it is capable of doing so, and when intervention can plausibly halt mass violence. The policy need not be formalized, stated or written down, but need only be inferred from the actions of the U.S. The U.S. could adopt the following criteria for intervention:

“1. The actual or anticipated loss of life substantially exceeds the lives lost to violence in the United States.
2. The military operation to stop the massive loss of life would not put at risk anything close to the number of lives it would save.
3. The United States is able to secure the participation of other countries in the military intervention[5].”

Risk:  Even with military units prepared for and devoted to humanitarian intervention, it is possible a successful intervention will require a larger force than the U.S. is able to commit, thus possibly weakening the credibility of U.S. power in humanitarian crises. Commitment of too many units to intervention could harm America’s ability to defend allies or project power elsewhere in the world. An unsuccessful intervention, especially one with a large number of American casualties, could easily sour the American public on intervention, and produce a backlash against foreign commitments in general.

Gain:  Intervention can halt or reduce destabilizing refugee flows by ending mass killing. It can also help guarantee American moral leadership on the world stage, as the great power that cares about humanity especially if contrasted with such atrocities as Chinese abuse of Uighurs or Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals. The saving of lives in a humanitarian intervention adds a moral benefit to the strategic benefits of action.

Option #2:  The U.S. adopts a policy of non-intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. could refuse to intervene to halt atrocities, even in cases where intervention is widely believed to be able to stop mass violence. Rather than intervening in some cases but not others, as has been the case in the last three decades, or intervening whenever possible, the U.S. could be consistent in its refusal to use force to halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, or other atrocities. Absent a formal declaration of atrocity prevention as a vital national security interest, it would not intervene in such conflicts.

Risk:  A policy of non-intervention risks bringing moral condemnation upon the United States, from the international community and from portions of the U.S. population. The U.S. risks surrendering its moral position as the world’s most powerful defender of liberal values and human rights. Furthermore, refugee flows from ongoing conflicts threaten to further destabilize societies and reduce populations’ trust in liberal democracy and international institutions.

Gain:  Non-intervention lowers the risk of U.S. military power being weakened before a potential conflict with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. This option helps the U.S. avoid charges of inconsistency that result from intervention in some humanitarian crises but not others. The U.S. could choose to ignore the world’s condemnation, and concern itself purely with its own interests. Finally, non-intervention allows other countries to bear the burden of global stability in an increasingly multi-polar age, an age in which U.S. power is in relative decline.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Hill, Evan and Christiaan Triebert. “12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia.” New York Times, October 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/13/world/middleeast/russia-bombing-syrian-hospitals.html

[2] “Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050: World Bank Report.” World Bank, March 19, 2018. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report

[3] Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” Atlantic, September 2001. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571

[4] Daalder, Ivo H. “Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended.” Brookings Institution, December 1, 1998. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended

[5] Solarz, Stephen J. “When to Go in.” Blueprint Magazine, January 1, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20070311054019/http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=1126&kaid=124&subid=158

Mass Killings Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers United States