The Future of War: What the Syrian War Portends for Tomorrow’s Conflicts

Turkish troops secure the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 28, 2018 (AP photo).
Turkish troops secure the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 28, 2018 (AP photo).
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In the Syrian civil war, combatants are not always divided along clear lines, making it more difficult than ever for conventional forces like the U.S. military to combat pockets of insurgency. Find out more with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Week by week, month by month, the horrific war in Syria grinds on, killing Syrian civil war combatants from many countries and, most tragic of all, Syrian civilians—the unintended or, in many cases, intended victims of the warring parties. It’s easy to look at the Syrian war as uniquely horrible, the catastrophic result of geography, Bashar al-Assad’s craven brutality, the spread of jihadism and its malignant ideology, and foreign intervention. But in reality, Syria represents a frightening window into the future of war. If, in fact, Syria is the model, future wars are likely to have several defining characteristics.

The first and perhaps most defining characteristic of the Syrian war is its intricate and deadly complexity. Rather than two nations or alliances pitted against each other, multiple interconnected fights occupy the same space and time. Second, the Syrian war suggests that future conflicts will involve a situation-specific configuration of forces, rather than enduring alliances, as one insurgency blends into the next. Third, the conflict shows that despite the massive and well-publicized human costs of contemporary wars, the international community has lost its stomach for humanitarian intervention. Fourth, Syria demonstrates something that has been evident for decades: The United Nations is unsuited to play a major role in complex, modern wars, particularly when permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, each with a veto over its actions, are involved.

To learn more about the complexity of future warfare, read What Syria Reveals About the Future of War for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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The U.S. May Be Winning Battles, but Is It Losing the War?

Wars resembling Syria’s civil war will share other attributes both on and off the battlefield, with profound and troubling implications for the United States. As is all too clear today, the U.S. is unequipped to fight or resolve insurgency-style conflicts. America may be unsurpassed at waging a traditional, unambiguous war where the antagonists and battlefield are clear. But it is a different story for operations that are not defined by the law of armed conflict, where battlefield victory not does equal strategic success, and when the conflict doesn’t last a relatively short time with a clear beginning and end: in other words, the war in Syria, and the future wars it signals.

To find out more about the challenges the United States will face in future wars, read The United States Isn’t Ready for Future, Syria-Style Wars for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Why the U.S. Military Needs a New Approach to Psychological Warfare

Warfare has always been both physical and psychological. In the modern era, militaries turned to communication technology and psychology to weaken the will of their adversaries and anyone who might support them. Soldiers were trained to craft and transmit messages and propaganda, while psychological operations became a particular military specialization. Over time, the U.S. military got quite good at this. But now, much has changed. Technology gives individuals the ability to share images of or information about a conflict with global audiences, potentially shaping perceptions more than any traditional psychological operations specialist ever could. Psychological warfare has become dispersed and democratized, and the target audience for psychological warfare has expanded globally. Social media is the linchpin of this seismic change in the character of conflict, and to remain effective in this new environment, the U.S. military needs a new capability to shape the narrative of conflict.

Can the U.S. military adapt its information operations to address the role of social media in future warfare? To find out more, read Social Media Has Democratized Psychological Warfare. Can the U.S. Military Adapt? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The Faulty Assumptions Underpinning the U.S. Military’s Vision of Future Conflict

Despite these evolutions in the nature of conflicts to come, the U.S. military has recently begun pivoting back to an emphasis on preparing for conventional warfare. In December, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command released a new report that offers a fascinating window into how the Army sees future armed conflict and how it intends to prepare for it. Entitled, “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028,” the report expands on the National Defense Strategy, which the Pentagon unveiled in early 2018. That document identified America’s primary security threat as “revisionist powers,” particularly Russia and China. While the Army sees a role for itself in countering tactics that fall below the threshold of war, or what security experts call “gray zone” aggression, most of the new report focuses on how it would respond if China and Russia resorted to outright aggression. This makes sense only if Russia and China actually plan to attack nearby nations, and if American policymakers would be willing to go to war to throw them out. Therein lies the rub: The new Army report and, more broadly, the U.S. military’s vision of the future are based on strategic and political assumptions that may or may not hold. As is always the case, assumptions are the foundation of any vision of the future but also its greatest potential weakness.

Is the U.S. military’s vision of future warfare based on accurate assumptions? To find out more, read The U.S. Army Has a Vision for the Future. Is It the Right One? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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You can learn much more about how Syrian civil war combatants and the fight against a seemingly endless insurgency reflect the future of war, and a wide variety of other issues, in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.

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