April 26, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Military Expands Its Role in Syria

• On April 25, President Obama announced that an additional 250 military personnel would be deployed to Syria, including Special Forces

• As with the 50 personnel currently on the ground in northern Syria, the focus of the additional troops will be to train and advise local units to eventually retake Raqqa from the Islamic State

• The new special operations forces will train Syrian Arab units; their predecessors have been working with Kurdish groups that will not take a leading role in the Raqqa campaign

• In the last week, the U.S. has announced troop increases in Iraq and now Syria, in a sign of limited mission creep.


The United States is getting more directly involved in simultaneous military campaigns against the two proclaimed capitals of the so-called Islamic State. A week after announcing an additional 200 military personnel to help train and advise Iraqi troops in preparation for the recapture of Mosul, the U.S. announced that it would send an additional 250 troops to Syria in preparation for the recapture of Raqqa. On April 25, U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed earlier reports regarding an additional 250 special operations forces personnel, an unknown number of whom will be Special Forces troops, and the remainder of whom will provide force protection, logistics, and medical support. 

The new troops will train Syrian Arab rebel forces specifically to fight the Islamic State and take the lead in the eventual—but not too far off—campaign to retake Raqqa. The current contingent of 50 special operations forces (not to be confused with Special Forces) has been working exclusively with Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. The existence of two separate training efforts illustrates how complicated the Syrian war is at every level. Raqqa is a predominately Sunni Arab area; having Kurds lead the fight would be problematic, at the very least. As in Iraq, sectarian and ethnic tensions supersede straightforward military considerations. 

It is no small thing to effectively quadruple the U.S. military presence in the middle of a still-raging civil war. Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. is partnered with the host government, however dysfunctionally, the U.S. has no government partner in Syria, and it is not supporting the anti-government rebels. Rather, it is trying to cobble together a force that will focus only on fighting the Islamic State. The Kurds, its best partner to date, are considered terrorists by Turkey, one of the more important members of the coalition. It is difficult to overstate the complexity and potential for missteps in this campaign.

As seen with the Syrian Kurd units, the training and advice provided by the U.S. will prove enormously valuable and will greatly improve the fighting capabilities of any units in which they embed, leading to noticeable tactical victories. This path is a well-worn one: tactical victories hope to buy time for strategic reforms that never take place. As seen repeatedly in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Syria, there is no way to train and equip selected units enough to resolve the underlying forces pulling the countries apart.

With every increase in U.S. troop numbers in Syria and Iraq, the concern over mission creep grows. However, it is unlikely that the U.S. will substantially increase its troop levels to even a fraction of the number seen in the early years of the Iraq War. The main concern is the absence of real alternatives, and the continued application of a strategy in which elite U.S. troops are creating and training small, highly functional units at a time when nothing else in the political or social system is functioning at all. 


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