The Obama administration’s announcement today that the United States would send less than 50 Special Operations forces to Kurdish territory in Syria stands as one of his most high-profile decisions on the subject of Syria’s now four and a half year old civil war.
For a president who has fought for so long to keep the United States out of another entanglement in the Middle East, the policies enumerated today came as a surprise to many. After all, the President, who staked his foreign policy claim as being diametrically opposed to many of predecessors policies in the Middle East, has repeated the phrase ‘no boots on the ground’ (or other, similar iterations) throughout his tenure in the White House.
Similarly, the White House seems again to be entering into Syria with plenty of good intentions but no real strategy, the perfect ingredients for mission creep, the dreaded fear of critics from his left as well as isolationists to his right. However, several key factors suggest that this is not the wholesale change that many suggest and instead is merely a slight tweak to the already existing policy consisting of airpower, selective use of raids, and symbolic action, especially against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
First, the nature of the deployment suggests a limited interest in bringing about real change in U.S. policy in the country. Less than 50 soldiers – White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized the ‘less’ in the phrase repeatedly today while remaining opaque on any further numbers – is not really sufficient to bring down anything other than small and relatively weakly defended targets. Even with air support – whose efficacy is constantly being called into questioned given the ferocity of the campaign and ISIS’s relatively strong staying power over the last year – less than 50 troops does not signal an about face in U.S. policy, a strong commitment to changing the facts on the ground in a total and meaningful way.
Similarly, the fact that the Special Operations forces enter the conflict under the auspices of advising local forces suggests that the White House is not interested in inserting U.S. forces directly into harm’s way. An astute observer could point out that this was exactly how Kennedy began involvement in Vietnam War under his watch, but this is precisely the point. Everyone watching the conflict is going to be analyzing the actions of these 50 from every possible angle and most American observers – as well as others – will have Vietnam firmly in mind when evaluating their actions. Mission creep is always an concern, whether stated or unstated, and given the lack of will in the U.S. for engagement in Syria, direct military action endangers the existing mission. While few expect 50 Special Operations forces not to fight at all, the politics surrounding their deployment will make large involvements difficult without a major shift within Washington and the United States regarding the Syrian conflict.
Additionally, the same factors that have bedeviled the United States since the beginning of the Syrian war continue to hamper U.S. ambitions in the country. The multilayered nature of the conflict and the ever-shifting web of alliances means that the U.S. will continue to have difficulty finding long-term allies. Day after day, groups make and break an ever expanding list of temporary agreements, often putting groups that envision a secular and diverse Syria on the same page with religious extremists and al-Qaeda. The recent and spectacular failure of U.S.-trained rebels in Syria shows how badly the situation has deteriorated and how few recruits remain amenable to working with the U.S. against ISIS in the region. As has been pointed out repeatedly but somehow lost on starry eyed dreamers hopeful for a more muscular U.S. policy in the country, a not insignificant number of the groups fighting in Syria are not in line with U.S. ideals and would not necessarily represent U.S., Russian, or European dreams for the future of the country, thus further limiting the pool of potential recruits.
In the search for dependable allies in the country, the U.S. has consistently fallen back to championing the cause of the Kurds. While the Kurds have proven dependable cobelligerents in Syria and beyond, the relationship between the leading group, the YPG, and the regime is at best unknown and there is a good chance that fighting in league with certain elements of the Kurdish resistance will serve Assad and provide a conduit through which U.S. military information can pass directly (and illicitly) to Damascus. Similarly, there are significant limits to relying on groups that have frayed relationships with a number of Syria’s many minority groups. Charges of ethnic cleansing have been repeatedly leveled at Kurdish groups operating in Syria, and recent accusations from Amnesty International can and should call into question the sterling reputation that Kurdish groups enjoy carte blanche in certain U.S. policy circles.
These actions – and the distrust that they sow – will make it difficult for Kurdish groups to hold onto to areas in which they are not the majority long term without slipping into the brutality that the U.S. is trying to stop. While there are no perfect sides in any war, the relatively narrow attraction of Kurdish forces to the larger Syrian population poses a particular problem for U.S. forces operating in the country. Despite the impressive gains made by Kurdish forces over the last year, Kurdish groups still have tenuous control over much of their forward operating territory. Similarly, Turkish concerns about Kurdish control over Syria, particularly border areas, tempers the strength of Kurdish gains and gives pause to astute observers who might be willing to throw the full weight behind Syrian Kurdish forces. U.S. forces – ever cautious given the United States’ discomfort with full-fledged combat – need the safest, most flexible staging area possible, meaning that the expanding Kurdish-controlled territories from which U.S. forces will operate is in reality much smaller than it initially appears. This limited area and constrictive alliance should dampen the enthusiasm of anyone expecting a major policy change towards the conflict.
All of these issues present serious challenges to U.S. efforts to mount a serious campaign against ISIS and the Assad regime within Syria but pale in comparison to the elephant in the room: U.S. ambivalence in Syria. While Washington’s rhetoric has not significantly shifted since the early days of the conflict – Assad has lost legitimacy and cannot be part of Syria’s future – it has never advanced a serious plan to take on Assad directly, despite several notable opportunities to do so, most significantly in the aftermath of the gas attacks in August 2013 that nearly led to major world involvement in Syria’s war. Again, a desire to avoid major entanglements in the Middle East has been at the forefront of the minds of many U.S. policymakers and voters, limiting American involvement in the region despite the growing humanitarian concerns.
These reservations might not have proved the undoing of Washington’s aspirations for a democratic Syria if not for the steadfast and – recently – exponentially increasing support from Moscow and Tehran for Assad. The Russian airstrikes that began on 30 September sent a message not only to the United States and Europe, but also to Russian allies in the Caucuses, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe: Moscow is willing to go to great lengths to defend its allies, regardless of their behavior, strategic importance, or adversaries. Recent news that Russia is transporting Iranian arms into Moscow gives further evidence of how deep of a commitment Tehran and Moscow have for their long time but beleaguered ally. Tehran and Moscow have signaled both to the West and their allies around the world that Syria represents a fundamental part of their sphere of influence. Washington and its allies have not responded in a way to give observers any reason to think otherwise.
The most recently announced U.S. plans in Syria are nothing more than the continuation of the token efforts in Syria that the U.S. has insisted on pursuing throughout the conflict. Although the deployment of 50 plus or minus Special Operations forces – advising or otherwise – might give the United States the ability to conduct small raids on high value targets or bring about small but critically important counterterrorism objectives, they do not suggest that Washington has changed its tune in Syria somehow. For better or worse, symbolic is about as deep as it gets for Washington’s policy in Syria these days. In the coming days, discussions in Vienna may signal a breakthrough in world policy via Syria – the continuation of the existing stalemate, a renewed push from Gulf states towards Assad’s ouster, or even a comprehensive agreement between Iran, Moscow, and Washington, whatever form it might take – but until such details are known, today’s announcement will stand merely as one of many that proclaimed new action in Syria while preserving the U.S. policy of calculated inaction.