Author’s note: as Trump pulls U.S. troops out of Syria, it’s worth noting what I pointed out here in late 2015: that the limited deployments there (then and now) were/are (still) very low-risk, high reward, that we gained so much more than anything we lost, and that, essentially, this makes Trump’s move stupid and pointless as far as U.S.interests are concerned, throwing away leverage, ceding influence to our rivals, betraying the Kurds, and losing so much credibility for nothing in return for America.
Contrary to critics, the decision of Obama’s to deploy Special Operations troops to Syria is neither a giant step forward into a quagmire nor a meaningless symbolic gesture. In fact, as far as bang-for-the-buck analysis, Obama (again) demonstrates his ability to minimize risk and maximize benefit.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse November 3, 2015
AMMAN — President Obama’s recent decision to deploy a small number (“fewer than 50”) of Special Operations troops to Syria is certainly raising quite a lot of discussion. To the president’s left, cries of “mission creep,” “escalation,” and “quagmire” are raising the specter of wider war and American military misadventures past and present. To his right, the criticism is that this is “too little too late,” a move of timidity and weakness that diminishes the presidency and America. Talk of “Golidocks” and “just right” may be presumptuous, but there is little reason to panic and every reason to think that this move on the part of Obama—whose foreign policy (particularly regarding Syria) has been characterized by risk aversion and caution more than any president in recent memory—will continue his trend of finding shrewd ways to increase America’s effectiveness and impact while only exposing American interests and personnel to minimal risks, in line with his recent decision to robustly supply non-ISIS rebels with tank-busting TOW missiles.
As of now, the mission for these several dozen Special Operations troops is not to engage in combat alongside rebels but to train, advise, and assist. To start, they will be deployed at a single headquarters location for the opposition in northern Syria, away from where Russian jets have been bombing targets, though officials acknowledged that this limited geographic scope could very well change in the future. This means that most of the American troops’ efforts—and possibly all—will initially be collaborating with Syria’s Kurdish forces, who control most of Syria’s northernmost regions and whose zones of control border ISIS—not Syrian government—zones. Thus, for now, the U.S. troops will be focusing their efforts on anti-ISIS operations, not anti-Assad ones, and officials have framed the deployment as a move against ISIS. The deployment to this region, which borders Turkey, will also likely act as a check on the increasing hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds, as having U.S. forces embedded there will limit Turkey’s ability to strike freely. This will be welcome, as it seems that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used recent terrorist attacks as an excuse to go after Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, especially after the main Kurdish political party in Turkey dealt him a major electoral setback in a recent election, despite the fact that his own investigators say ISIS, not Kurds, are the likely culprit (in any event, Erdogan’s cynical approach seems to have won: his party won enough seats to govern alone, while the Kurdish party lost a bit, in a new election held just days ago). Finally, U.S. Special Operations troops in Syria’s north will make it easier to begin implementing any eventual safe havens for civilians and/or no-fly zones.
Republican hawks making noise that borders on warmongering and whose ideas consist of exposing American troops to high-risk situations unnecessarily while removing the burden of regional actors to clean upmesses in their own backyard seem to lack an appreciation of just how effective even small numbers of Special Operations forces can be. Those on the left, meanwhile, who cry foul and see Vietnam and Iraq over their shoulder and accuse Obama of warmongering are not recognizing how severely limited this deployment is.
Split into very small groups or even as individuals, Special Operations troops will be able to support dozens of allied rebel units and dramatically increase their effectiveness. With even just one troop embedded with an entire rebel unit of hundreds—perhaps even more—of fighters, those fighters and their commanders now have some of the most valuable assets in the world: a direct line to the intelligence of the U.S. government and to American warplanes and those of its coalition partners. State of the art technology means single operative can be able to relay critical information form the broadest and deepest intelligence community the world has ever seen. This drastically improves these rebel units’ ability to keep their own people safe, stay well supplied, find more opportune targets under less risky conditions, and generally stay one step ahead of ISIS (and potentially other) forces eager to destroy them; conversely, this setup also makes all those enemies of the rebels far more vulnerable, either opening them up to more devastating attacks or confining their freedom of action. These are no small advantages in a war as tangled, convoluted, and capriciously see-sawas this one. Finally, the rebels will have the advantages of being trained by some of the most professional, talented, vetted, and well-equipped personnel within the entire U.S. Military.
Sure, in addition to ISIS, the rebels still face a daunting alliance of Syria’s government forces, Iranian and Russian forces, and the near-army like militia of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. And yet, the rebels having the advantage of being tapped into the U.S. intelligence community combined with the benefits of having U.S. military personnel embedded with them on the ground training them and being able to relay U.S. intelligence in real time before, during, and after operations, all the while also being armed by the U.S. with advanced anti-tank missiles, put the rebels in a relatively better position than before. In addition, the quality of U.S. intelligence will also improve with as many as dozens of on-the-ground American military sources of local intelligence in various locations with various units inside Syria, which will mean even better information going to the rebels in a kind of positive feedback loop, making the rebels a much more formidable force that acts and reacts with far more access the big picture than ever before.
Any subsequent American leader will hardly find him/herself constrained in either escalating or ending involvement as a result of Obama’s limited deployment. With this deployment, the U.S. gains better intelligence, will see its allies perform better, will see its influence increased, and will place a check on rising hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds, both allies of America. The biggest risk involved is a small number of casualties, yet Special Operations troops by definition sign up for missions that are far more risky and dangerous than normal missions but are also better trained to handle them, and the possibility that a large number of them become casualties is quite remote indeed. After President Bush’s “Go Big, Lose Big” approach, perhaps people should appreciate Obama’s “Go Small, Win Small-to-to-Medium” approach.
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