America’s war against ISIS is evolving into an invasion of Syria

Let’s put this in plain English. American forces and American allies are not only taking territory from ISIS, they’re holding that territory against regime forces. There’s a word for what happens when a foreign power takes and holds territory without the consent of the sovereign state — that word is “invasion.” In many ways, current American policy is a lighter-footprint, less ambitious version of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. We’re using local allies, but our own boots are on the ground, and we’re directly defending our forces and our allies from threats from Syria’s own government.

I happen to believe that a strategy of defeat, hold, and negotiate represents the best hope for a satisfactory solution to the Syrian crisis. In other words, defeat ISIS, help our allies hold the territory they’ve taken (while clearly communicating our intentions to Russia and Syria), and then negotiate a permanent solution that protects our interests. Russia and Assad would have to be insane to attempt to dislodge Americans by force, and clarity will decrease the chances for great-power conflict.

As it is, we have not (publicly, at least) articulated our strategic goals in Syria. Ambiguity breeds confusion. Confusion increases the risk of miscalculation and conflict. While there is not yet a crisis between Russia and the U.S., the risk of a deadly incident is rising. Russia’s decision to treat coalition aircraft “as targets” when allied aircraft operate west of the Euphrates while Russian combat planes are in the air isn’t exactly a shoot-down promise, but it does signal our increasing peril.