In mid-November, Israel and Hamas fought a 24-hour conflict in which Hamas fired 460 rockets at Israel and the Israeli air forces responded with 160 air strikes. At the same time, the U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners resumed the offensive against the Islamic State in Syria. The two operations, 500 miles from one another, appear distinct, but both are part of the new kind of conflict that is dominating this century. These are conflicts that tend to go through cycles, with no clear end in sight.
From Ukraine to Yemen to Afghanistan to Somalia, such conflicts are paramount. At a briefing on Nov. 14, U.S. Special Representative for Syrian Engagement James Jeffrey suggested the United States would remain in eastern Syria until all "Iranian-commanded forces" had departed. This could mean another open-ended engagement much like that in Afghanistan.
The wars that dominate the world today are hybrid conflicts, consisting often of a series of small wars. The "long war" is defined by the U.S. transition from post-Cold War era to global conflicts in the war on terror. This includes the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the Sahara in Africa, to the Philippines. A recent Stratfor article noted that the Taliban controls 47 of Afghanistan's 398 districts and that ISIS is still capable of threatening Iraq. Since that article was published in August, the Taliban has increased its influence. Two sources on the ground in Syria, on the frontline with ISIS in Hajin, confirmed to me that the extremists are difficult to defeat and have been able to counterattack U.S.-backed forces over the past month.
How we got here is relatively well known. One hundred years ago, after the armistice in the First World War, the concept of war tended towards decisive victories that ended with treaties. During the Cold War, Western armies came to face insurgencies in places such as Malaya and Vietnam. When the Cold War ended, the United States entered a period of "small wars," such as the U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo and humanitarian intervention operations in Somalia and Haiti. "Small wars are thus an extension of warfare by additional means, providing political leaders with a range of military options beyond just physical violence with which to further political objectives," the Small Wars Journal says.
Oddly, the "long war" was supposed to have ended under the Obama administration. President Obama wanted to roll back or end U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the United States is operating in at least 90 countries where 8,000 U.S. special operations forces are based. Gen. Raymond Thomas III, U.S. Special Operations Command chief, told the House Armed Services Committee in February that his forces "continue to grow in scale, importance and demand," operating in 10 more (undisclosed) countries between 2017 and 2018. Operations are conducted in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, across the Sahel in Africa, and in areas called the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahara.
The role of U.S. forces is only one part of an interlocking strategy that includes numerous U.S. allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, or governments from Afghanistan to Niger to Somalia. Israel, for example, has managed an endless conflict with the Palestinians that goes back decades. In Gaza, this conflict is fought against Hamas, which recently fired more rockets in one day than it ever fired before in a single 24-hour period. Israel is developing technologies that stop rockets and using sophisticated methods to warn civilians in Gaza of impending airstrikes. In one case, reported by The Telegraph's Raf Sanchez, an Israeli soldier spent 45 minutes on the phone with a Palestinian civilian, warning him to leave his home.
For the American public these endless, irregular wars don't appear to carry much of a human cost. Compared with a war such as Vietnam, there have been relatively few U.S. casualties in Syria or Afghanistan. That is because the United States has transitioned from leading operations to working "by, with, and through" local forces. This is the diametric opposite of the bloodletting of the First World War that ended 100 years ago this month. Battles such as Belleau Wood in World War I resulted in more U.S. casualties than the United States has suffered in fighting ISIS over the past four years.
That might make these endless wars easy for most civilians to ignore, but it doesn't decrease their importance. This century may end up being one in which the United States and its allies are fighting one long endless war.
Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS.