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The Expert View: U.S. Boots on the Ground

Syria Deeply reached out to some of our foremost experts on Syria and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to get their take on the U.S. decision to send a group of special forces troops into the war-torn country. Is it too little too late? Should we be worried about mission creep?

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 12 minutes

As global powers met in Vienna last Friday to discuss political solutions to the ongoing violence in Syria, the Obama administration announced its intention to send a group of special operations forces into the war-torn country.

Throughout the next month, 50 or so American special operation troops will arrive in northern Syria to advise Kurdish and Arab opposition forces in their battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The White House has said the troops will be on the ground to “train, advise and assist” local forces, and will explicitly not be engaged in any kind of combat operations.

But after nearly five years of attempting to keep the turmoil in Syria at arm’s length, why has Obama changed his strategy?

The decision to put American boots on the ground in Syria marks the president’s biggest change in policy since the U.S. began its limited air campaign against Islamic State targets back in September 2014. But with only 50 troops, will this minimal escalation change anything on the ground? What is the possibility of mission creep? Did Russia’s military intervention last month force Obama’s hand?

Syria Deeply reached out to some of our verified experts to get their take on the situation.

Ayham Kamel

Director, Middle East and North Africa at Euroasia Group

I think the Obama administration is still fairly within the world where military intervention in Syria is not perceived to be the solution to the conflict, and that’s the starting point in looking at different policy options given both the developments in the Syrian war and the Russian intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime. What I would say is this form of very limited deployment – we’re talking about basically anti-terror operations and support for moderate rebels, primarily the Kurdish factions in Syria, or Kurdish-led factions in Syria – in no way represents a replica of what Moscow is trying to do in Syria, nor does it directly undermine all the Russian objectives in Syria. That is not necessarily the case. Truthfully, the decision to send in a massive deployment of jet fighters in an attempt to help the Assad regime gain control over the core parts of Syria has really pushed the Obama administration further in that direction, but it has really more to do broadly with problems that the U.S. has been facing both in Iraq and Syria in confronting Islamic State.

The primary objective of the deployment is to guarantee that the U.S. is not left outside the solution, in terms of confronting Islamic State and resolving that problem. The previous strategy of zero troops on the ground just did not work. The Russian intervention in Syria accelerated things and pushed the Obama administration to authorize such a deployment in Syria to help the Kurds, in addition to guaranteeing that, for the foreseeable future, Washington does have a say and it is not Moscow only that will define the war against ISIS.

The second objective is a political one. It is to guarantee that the Assad regime is unable to ally itself with the Kurdish factions in Syria and therefore become extremely powerful and de facto the only alternative to ISIS in the country. That is a key U.S. policy objective – they want to prevent Assad from building political alliances that make him extremely viable, or from becoming re-legitimized to a level where the U.S. has minimal leverage in forcing him to compromise over changing the political system.

I don’t think this is a prelude to a massive military deployment in Syria at all. But the 50 advisors that are to be sent to Syria guarantee two things. First, that Kurdish factions in Syria do not sway fully toward the regime and become fully allies. And second, even with some moderate Arab factions fighting alongside the Kurdish forces, that the U.S. can claim, at least at some level, that it is supporting some moderate factions, which are very, very difficult to find in Syria and present a very small minority. So the U.S. does not want to be perceived as having backed up only the Kurds. They want to help very small remnants of moderate forces and the Kurds. And by deploying these troops, one, it guarantees some political moderation in terms of what these forces do, and two, it guarantees perception-wise that the U.S. is not seen as having left its support of these so-called moderate forces, after the failure of its train and equip program. It’s really a very minimalistic approach toward dealing with the complex and evolving environment that is the Syrian conflict. I still believe that this is not a prelude to a massive confrontation with Russia, or an extensive U.S. deployment in the Syrian battlefield.

Rami Khouri

Award-winning journalist and director of the Issam Fares Institute

The U.S. in Syria since 2011 has consistently used limited military means to achieve imprecise political aims with vaguely identified Syrian allies and partners. Its main aim has been to avoid getting involved in a direct war while talking about removing President Assad. It has failed on both fronts to date, while seeing the birth of ISIS and the expansion of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah military action in Syria. This latest military move could have some local impact in fighting ISIS in coordination with stronger indigenous ground forces, but longer-term consequences will depend on the actions of the half a dozen other major military forces in Syria, as the U.S. continues to react to events there rather than shape them.

Lorenzo Trombetta

A Beirut-based analyst and expert on Middle Eastern politics

For the Obama administration, Syria is a lower strategic priority than Iraq. The focus is on fighting ISIS, not on altering the domestic political and military balances in the ongoing Syrian civil strife. In their recent declarations, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford have implicitly confirmed that American intervention in Iraq has a wider and more long-term dimension than in Syria. They announced the increase of American strategic support to the Iraqi forces on the ground, especially in the Anbar region. This announcement came right after the successful Iraqi offensive along the Baghdad-Bayji route axis, and the military blitz of South Kirkuk conducted by the American special operations forces. In Iraq, Washington has clearly stated that direct Russian intervention is not welcomed.

In Syria, the U.S. has a different approach. The presence of ISIS between Iraq and Syria has forced Washington to espouse, at least rhetorically, a position focused on “fighting terrorism” in both countries. But since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, the Obama administration has failed to translate this into direct action. Washington has practically relied on Moscow to solve the Syrian “problem.” After the chemical attack in August 2013, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov offered U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry the political exit strategy to avoid a direct military American intervention. More recently, the U.S. has, in effect, welcomed the Russian aerial campaign in central and northern Syria against various opposition armed groups. Moscow explicitly and directly coordinates its attacks with the U.S., Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran.

After the failure of the U.S. program aimed at training “moderate rebels” in northern Syria to use solely in the fight against ISIS, Washington has announced a shifting in its tactical approach, focusing on the Kurdish card instead of the Arab one. In its actions alone, it appears Washington has been coordinating the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes with Russia’s aerial campaign. The Western-Turkish-Gulf coalition continues to target ISIS positions in northern and eastern Syria (mainly in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces), while the Russian strikes have been focused on targets in central and northwestern regions (Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia provinces).

The U.S. has thus diverted resources to northeastern Syria, in the Kurdish-dominated area between the Tel Abyad border crossing point with Turkey and Qamishli, the capital of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region. At the same time, the creation of a new Syrian Kurdish-led military platform has been announced with the participation of several armed Arab and Christian Assyrian groups. The U.S. has confirmed its support to the newly born “Democratic Syrian Army” (JASAD is the Arabic acronym) headed by the YPG Kurdish militias. The dozens of U.S. “military advisors” that Washington intends to put on the ground will help JASAD in fighting ISIS in Raqqa, as the priority of the YPG-led coalition is to “liberate” the so-called Syrian capital of the Islamic State.

In doing so, Washington aims to demonstrate to the international community its efforts at “fighting terrorism” both in Syria and in Iraq. Russia’s heavy-handed intervention in Syria made it so the Obama administration simply could not remain silent. But the American ground support to the YPG militias will have a limited impact in altering the status quo in Raqqa province. In the meantime, Obama and his staff will have bought enough time to plan their next rhetorical move before the incumbent leaves the duties of the Oval Office to the next U.S. president.

Theodore Karasik

Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs with Gulf State Analytics.

The Obama administration’s decision to send 50 special operations forces (SOF) advisers “to train, advise and assist” rebel groups in Syria’s northeast corner is a logical move if emotion is removed from the equation. We need to remember that President Obama’s order is not a sustained troop presence and it is not a combat role. What is interesting is that there is resistance in the U.S. Defense Department. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter retorted that Obama’s decision to send U.S. special forces to Syria will put U.S. forces “in harm’s way.” That may be true, but that’s war and this fact is why the U.S. SOF is used in the first place as a military instrument. It’s the tip of America’s spear. The Pentagon may be wary, too, because of the historical division lines between U.S. civil masters and U.S. military commanders. Carter knows what a small SOF adviser mission may lead to – mission creep. In addition, Obama’s order is not just about 50 operations: the logistics tail for these 50 advisers is going to mean hundreds of additional troops and staff along with support equipment based at Incirlik air base in Turkey and perhaps elsewhere around the battle space.

Obama’s change in strategy is in response to the increasing involvement of Russia and Iran in Syria. The development of operational sectors for outside advisers and combatants is a clear result of the Kremlin’s intervention. The Obama administration, probably tired of accusations of inaction, needed to save face not only [in the light of] complaints coming from within Washington, D.C., but also [complaints] from Arab allies that the United States is sitting on the sidelines conducting diplomacy – even with Iran – but with no ground presence. In addition, Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led air coalition campaign against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, is not having the desired impact and thus local boots on the ground – probably a variety of mostly Kurdish groups – require American assistance. Let’s remember that American SOF have already conducted two raids into Syria – most notably, the killing of Abu Sayyaf and the seizure of Islamic State financial records and other files.

Yes, Russia’s intervention forced Obama to react. There is no doubt about that fact. It is not too late for America to do what it should have done in the first place: augment Operation Inherent Resolve with appropriate ground forces. That aspect is what U.S. military doctrine preaches but was not enacted. Now we see the results: Islamic State continues to be resilient and thrive. The Kremlin saw an opportunity to enter Syria to protect traditional Alawite lands and strike what Russia sees as extremists. Now, geostrategic politics have forced the Obama administration to grab a chunk of Syria – the northeastern corner – in order to havegravitas at the negotiating table concerning Syria’s future. Thus, the American insertion of SOF trainers opens the door for operational sectors. There will need to be information-sharing and coordination in order to avoid accidents either via airstrikes or via ground operations by various groups, whether pro-Assad or anti-Damascus, pro-Nusra, pro-Daesh [ISIS]. Even with behind the scenes coordination, de-confliction must be ready to be set in motion between all state actors. Russia has made the most strides in setting up communication networks and America needs to catch up. That’s a problem.

Mission creep is always a distinct possibility as the concept [has been] a symptom [of] recent U.S. military actions. No one can predict where this deployment will go in the Syrian maelstrom because of the volatility of the constant mutations occurring among the Syrian opposition groups. We have seen mission creep in every American operation in the Middle East and North Africa region since 9/11 and before. So why would that fact change now? The only hope is that a healthy opposition can coalesce to isolate the real extremists.

Yazid Sayigh

Senior Associate, Carnegie Middle East Center

It is certainly significant that the U.S. will send special forces advisers to Syria, but at the same, this step marks more continuity than a significant change in strategy or policy. The U.S. mission will not transform opposition capabilities, especially if it remains constrained by the same criteria that limited the previous U.S. training program, which ended in such failure. Rather, the U.S. is maintaining its general policy of giving political signals of its continued commitment to opposition forces in Syria, while trying to limit the real scope of its efforts so as to avoid a major expansion of its involvement, or an escalation of tensions with other actors like Russia. This latest U.S. step is a response to the Russian military involvement, but a limited one and not a game changer.

Sharif Nashashibi

Award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs

It’s hard to fathom what U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to achieve by sending less than 50 special operations forces to Syria. The decision will raise domestic concerns over American boots on the ground and the possibility of mission creep, particularly since Defense Secretary Ash Carter is not ruling out the possibility of further deployments to Syria. However, the paltry number of troops will fail to placate those who say Washington isn’t doing enough, particularly in light of Russia’s recent muscle flexing in Syria, and the recent collapse of the U.S. program to train rebels against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Since the target of the deployment is ISIS, Obama may further anger members and supporters of the Syrian opposition who criticize him for not going after the root cause of the conflict and the party responsible for the majority of casualties – the regime.

What Washington thinks less than 50 special forces troops will achieve against an organization of tens of thousands that has expanded despite more than a year of aerial bombardment and various ground forces is anyone’s guess. Avoiding American casualties and a subsequent flash point between Washington and Moscow will likely necessitate a greater degree of cooperation between the two than has been agreed upon prior to the deployment. This could raise the ire of Syrian rebels and Washington’s regional allies – particularly Turkey and the Gulf states – that are opposed to the Russian intervention. It may even lead to speculation over whether the U.S. is coordinating with the regime itself to safeguard its troops.

The deployment will add to the widespread sense that has existed throughout the conflict that Obama has no coherent or consistent strategy over Syria and has fumbled his way all along, making matters worse through indecision and bad decisions. Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that Obama’s latest move is “very strong and forceful” is laughable, but the consequences may be anything but.

Richard Murphy

Former U.S. ambassador to Syria (1974–78) and former director of the Middle East Roundtable at the Council of Foreign Relations (1993–2004)

In terms of its military impact, the number of special operations forces committed by the Obama administration to Syria is meaningless. The administration may increase the numbers of ground elements in the coming weeks and months. If so, we may come to look back on the dispatch of special forces as having been the seed for a major commitment of American combat troops to Syria – although I doubt this. One can argue that the Russian military intervention forced Obama’s hand but neither Moscow nor Washington shows signs of intending the positioning of their forces to revive their Cold War confrontation.

Its importance is as a signal to the Russians, Iranians, the Damascus regime, our enemies in al-Qaida and Islamic State and to our friends that we are invested in and will be staying in to support the forces we have identified as constituting the moderate opposition in Syria.

The importance of the move should also be seen in the timing of its announcement: It coincided with discussions at the Vienna meetings and Vienna’s goal of shaping agreed principles among outsiders to Syria for a political solution to that crisis. We recognize that a readiness to use force will be essential to working out the compromises needed for a political solution.

Henry Hogger

Former U.K. ambassador to Syria

I suppose the accepted wisdom for some time has been that you can’t defeat the Daesh [ISIS] by airstrikes alone – so in that sense the decision must be welcome. It is important, however, that the U.S. action be seen to be more helpful than that of the Russians, which seems mainly focused on killing civilians and the “moderate” (i.e. U.S.-backed) opposition forces.

Top image: Kurdish fighters take up position to lure Islamic State group militants toward their location in Kobani, Syria, on Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Jake Simkin, File)

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