The United States Isn’t Ready for Future, Syria-Style Wars

The United States Isn’t Ready for Future, Syria-Style Wars
A child looks on as a fighter with the Free Syrian Army secures a checkpoint on the outskirts of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 27, 2018 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

The ongoing and increasingly grim conflict in Syria is a portent of wars to come. As I wrote last week, future Syria-style wars will be defined by four characteristics: intricate complexity, a conflict-specific configuration of antagonists, an inability of the international community to undertake humanitarian intervention and a failure of the United Nations to play an effective role in ending the fighting.

But beyond these core features, 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.

In any war, resource streams are crucial. Because a war like Syria’s involves both nations that finance their militaries by taxing their own citizens and nonstate combatants that must find other ways to raise funds, the most highly contested battlegrounds will be places where there are resources to exploit. That could be urban areas where there are many people who can be squeezed to fund the combatants, regions that produce lucrative resources, or transportation zones or corridors. Criminal networks will play a major role in these conflicts through smuggling, extortion and other revenue-generating techniques like drug production and theft, whether of natural resources or, in Syria’s case, looted antiquities. Criminals will also be conduits for getting arms to combatants without a state sponsor. Often combatants will be both political and criminal, making conflict resolution even more difficult.

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