Even as combat operations wind down in the war-torn country of Syria, contractor presence is ramping up.
No one knows how many combat contractors are in Syria right now, but there are about 2,000 U.S. soldiers in-country. Once combat operations end, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said contractors would focus on rebuilding and pacification. Their duties will also include training local police forces in IED removal and other necessary skills. A senior U.S. official remarked that combat operations should end sometime in 2018.
U.S. forces have avoided taking on the Syrian regular army, which has threatened to forcibly disolodge what it has called an “illegal” invading army. When asked if such a conflict was possible, Secretary Mattis said it would “probably be a mistake” for the Syrian army to disrupt American plans.
The Syrian Civil War Context
This last Veterans Day marked 100 years since the end of World War I. This conflict redrew the map of Europe as long-forgotten nations suddenly became independent from their imperial overlords. But World War I did not alter the way Great Powers dealt with weaker, non-European nations.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement is a good example of that. With the Great War still raging, and not going particularly well for the Allies, British and French representatives met to carve up the still-intact Ottoman Empire.
The ancient Ottoman Empire had been on the decline since 1683, when the Turks besieged Vienna for over a year and almost took the city. The defenders were holding on by their fingernails when a Polish-led relief army rolled out of the forested hills surrounding the city. Polish King Sobieski led the final charge of roughly 18,000 calvarymen, which was the largest cavalry charge in world history.
Back to Sykes-Picot. Oil had been discovered in Iran in 1908, and with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the Turks’ Middle Eastern territories were suddenly a lot more than sand dunes. London was also eager protect its lifeline to India, the British Empire’s crown jewel, from its longtime rival and wartime ally France.
So, the Great Powers drew an imaginary line “from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.” France received a sphere of influence over everything north of that line and Britain had a free hand south of the line. As was characteristic of these divisions, the Great Powers divided territory irrespective of the people who lived there.
Modern Syria almost literally straddled this line. So in a way, the Syrian civil war has been raging since before modern Syria even existed.
Following World War II, the sun set on the former European Great Powers. A new geopolitical struggle emerged, as East and West jockeyed for position in what was then called the Third World. In the Middle East, this struggle occurred in the context of the millennia-old conflict between Arabs and Jews. The United States backed Israel, which because of Sykes-Picot, was a former British possession. The Soviet Union made inroads into what was then known as the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria).
In both the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Syria relied almost exclusively on Soviet-made weapons. The close Damascus-Moscow alliance continued for the rest of the Cold War. That bond remained after the Cold War ended in 1991. The 2010 Arab Spring sparked a renewed civil war in Syria between rebels and longtime strongman Bashar al-Assad. Now, the United States backs various rebel groups and Russia backs its old ally Assad.
Contractor Duties Before and After
The situation in Syria remains fluid. One month, the fighting appears to be escalating. The next month, it appears to be winding down. But right now, the smart money says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has essentially written off Assad. If that is the case, the war will not end. It will just enter another phase in which contractors become even more critical.
Ongoing pacification is one concern. ISIS and other terrorist groups are incredibly resilient. They may lie dormant for many years and then suddenly emerge with a vengeance. Armed contractors are critical in this phase of warfare. They are usually more responsive to an ever-changing situation in a foreign country. Furthermore, once major combat operations end, there is pressure to “bring the boys home.” Many of these same people do not particularly care if contractors come home or not.
Furthermore, contractors also participate in rebuilding. It is difficult to express how important this phase is. History is replete with episodes of countries that won the war and lost the peace. Without things like roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals, was refugees will not return. ISIS still has an open door. Once refugees resettle, the situation stabilizes.
In most rebuilding projects, local laborers do much of the work. This approach pumps money into the local economy and gives local inhabitants a stake in the outcome. Overseas contractors usually serve in supervisory and site management roles. Foreign worksites in war zones are extremely dangerous areas. There is little or no government safety inspection. Moreover, there is the constant threat of militant attack. It takes a very special contractor to be a construction worker in a place like Syria.
Injury Compensation Available
Congress clearly foresaw situations like Syrian rebuilding when it passed the Defense Base Act in 1941. The DBA basically does for injured contractors what the Veterans Administration does for injured servicemembers. That means payment for medical bills and compensation for lost wages.
The DBA and VA are similar in other ways, as well. The Veterans Administration does not simply give away benefits to injured servicemembers. A generation after Vietnam, many Southeast Asia veterans are still fighting for compensation for illnesses like Agent Orange-induced cancer. DBA insurance providers are private companies which, like the VA, are concerned with protecting their own bottom lines.
The fight usually begins with the nature of the injury. Very few contractor injuries, especially combat injuries, fit neatly into work-related and non-work-related categories. For example, a contractor might visit the local market and be caught in a suicide bomber’s path. The law is quite clear that the DBA covers situations like these. But that fact does not stop insurance company lawyers from throwing up roadblocks.
DBA insurance companies also dispute the nature of medical expenses. Cancer treatments are a good example. Many cutting-edge treatments are being developed. Although they are quite effective, insurance company lawyers often claim that the procedures were not “medically necessary.”
The fight does not end after victims leave their hospital beds. Physical therapy, especially after a brain injury, is a long and grueling process. Insurance companies are anxious to pull the financial plug at the first sign of plateaued progress. An attorney must fight to keep funding alive so that the victim may fully recover.
For more information about the specific benefits available, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.