U.S. TROOPS IN SYRIA: Small Numbers, Big Impact
Train, Equip, and Advise
United States special operation troops will be entering Syria, according to several news sources. Anonymous statements made by U.S. officials indicate that this is not a full combat operation, but rather a small incursion of fewer than 50 troops entering northern Syria to assist moderate opposition forces against ISIS. This mission – given the relatively low number of troops – illustrates that Obama administration’s priorities have not changed and could be part of a larger strategy against Assad’s government.
There are a relatively small number of troops being sent to assist, advise, and ensure the receipt of weapons for the moderate opposition. There are remarkable similarities between the agendas of the failed Train and Equip (T&E) program and this operation, which shows a consistency in U.S. foreign policy. Both projects claim an objective to increase the military capacity of opposition groups/individuals to fight against ISIS. Both projects focus on the logistics of delivering supplies, weapons, and assistance. While this operation is to occur inside Syria and the T&E program was in Turkey, both provided the same function and both stress limited American engagement. One possible point of divergence is that the U.S. may have learned to be strategic about who to work with inside Syria.
So how is this operation an improvement on the T&E program? The argument can be made that the U.S. would not send forces into Syria without an intended point of contact and destination. Meaning, that unlike with the T&E program, where recipients of training had little to no internal influence in Syria, the U.S. is entering a war zone with the intent to train someone. Hopefully that someone has enough internal influence to be effective.
A Larger Strategy?
A significant criticism of this operation is that providing only minimal military support will sustain the war, as it increases the capacity of the comparatively ‘weaker’ side. This might indicate that the Obama administration is not interested in working towards a quick cessation of violence, instead the Obama administration focuses (and waits) for the necessary political leverage to push against the Syrian government, while militarily fighting ISIS. It is clear to me that there is not going to be strong political movement against Assad until the opposition has enough leverage.
This operation may have positive ramifications, depending on the influence and makeup of the chosen moderate opposition. If the U.S. works with groups similar to Syrian Democracy Forces – a coalition of Kurdish YPG and Arab tribes in northern Syria – then they are not only increasing the capacity of such a group to win battles against ISIS, but increasing their leverage to negotiate with the Assad government as well as attract weaker uncommitted parties into the coalition.
The moderate opposition groups/coalition chosen should have significant influence and control on the ground already. If they have won several battles and controlled territory, than they already hold a level of respect or enmity. U.S. support in methods for administration, maintaining territorial control, and advancing would only be benefit to opposition groups that can make use of it, rather than training disparate groups that unable to make a name for themselves.
Winning battles is a goal in and of itself, but the ultimate goal is attracting fractured groups to join and coordinate with one another against ISIS. Such a coalition then increases the threat of the opposition to the Assad government, providing leverage for future negotiations. Plus, direct U.S. military support also increases the oppositions’ leverage significantly for future negotiations. Finally, it also increases the Syrian opposition group’s leverage among the multitude fractured opposition groups, because small groups may find they want U.S. support, conditional upon coordinating in coalitions. Ultimately, Obama’s policy may grant the opposition (fighting ISIS at least) a greater capacity to win. One can only hope the administration knows the importance of working with the right people inside Syria.
(photo credit: In June, the U.S. announced that it was sending Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets to Jordan. Will troops and more arms be next? (AFP/File))