US decision to send more special operations forces to Syria raises concerns at home

Members of Congress criticise decision for either be­ing too little to do job or head­ing down slippery slope to nev­er-ending military engagement.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter


2016/05/08 Issue: 55 Page: 9


The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian



WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama’s decision to in­sert more special opera­tions forces into Syria reflects the views of his military commanders that such personnel are needed to conduct more operations against Islamic State (ISIS) targets and to shore up local forces arrayed against the ter­rorist group.

Members of Congress, however, criticised the decision for either be­ing too little to do the job or head­ing down a slippery slope to a nev­er-ending military engagement.

The Obama administration on April 25th announced it would send 250 additional special operations forces to Syria to augment the 50 already there to help the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up most­ly of Syrian Kurds and Syrian Sunni Muslim Arabs, to build on gains they made in taking territory from ISIS. Obama said in a news confer­ence that the US troops would not be leading the fight but would be essential in “providing the training and assisting local forces”.

An administration official said: “These forces will expand those ef­forts [connecting with local forces and enhancing targeting efforts] and build on what has been work­ing.”

Although unstated, the special forces will likely conduct opera­tions against specific ISIS targets. An April 28th article in the Daily Beast, a respected New York-based website, noted that US special op­erators have killed approximately 40 ISIS commanders, weakening the group’s ability to conduct op­erations.

Placing additional US forces into Syria undoubtedly exposes more of them to danger. A Pentagon spokes­man acknowledged that “they’re in harm’s way… and they will be able to defend themselves if they come under fire but that is not the intent of this deployment.”

In Iraq, some of the 3,500-4,000 US military trainers have expressed optimism about the improved qualities of the regular Iraqi Army. Others noted, however, that with­out US trainers being embedded in forward units, Iraqi troops have less confidence in mounting offen­sive operations. Some US military trainers have described this process as shoring up the “backbone” of the average Iraqi soldier.

The more US soldiers are in­volved with advance units of the Iraqi military, though the more they will come in harm’s way. There have been US casualties in Iraq dur­ing recent operations.

The announcement of more US special operations forces in Syria was greeted with tepid support by Obama’s critics who say the president needs to do more militar­ily. Retired US Army General Jack Keane described the new deploy­ment as a good first step but under­scored that “we’re likely nowhere near destroying the safe haven in Syria and taking [ISIS’s] capital city of Raqqa until at best sometime in 2017”.

Keane added that it is from this safe haven that ISIS conducts its internet operations, recruits new fighters, funds its military opera­tions and has its command and con­trol. “And we have never had a plan or a strategy to destroy the safe ha­ven,” he added.

Testifying April 28th before the US Senate Armed Services Commit­tee, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marines General Joseph Dunford heard sharp criti­cism of the administration’s policy from committee chairman Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and other Republicans.

McCain said: “Once again, the re­sponse has been reactive, slow and insufficient.” He added that, while the United States has made tacti­cal gains against ISIS, “we must ask ourselves: Is this [strategy] work­ing? Are we winning?”

Other Republicans on the com­mittee focused on the choice of words by the Obama administra­tion to describe its actions against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked: “Why does the administration go through these crazy [word] somersaults that the entire country knows is not cor­rect, to say our troops are not in combat when they’re in combat?”

Some Democrats have voiced concern that the insertion of more troops into Syria, in addition to the several thousand US military trainers in Iraq, has the markings of “mission creep”, which charac­terised the build-up of US forces in Vietnam in the 1960s.

The Pentagon spokesman denied the “mission creep” analogy and in­stead described the effort as “accel­erating” the campaign “to further enable” local forces: “This is not a question of putting in thousands of American forces to wage this fight.”

Obama’s strategy all along is to have local forces do the fighting but the chaos in Syria and Iraq likely means that these forces will not be able to defeat ISIS in his remaining months in office. The insertion of more US forces is aimed at speed­ing up the fight but victory remains elusive.


Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.


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