The U.S. is sending a small group of Special Operation Forces advisers to Syria to help its stalled allies in the war on the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But even before they get there, there is already skepticism within parts of the Pentagon about what impact they can have.
Some in the Pentagon are baffled why sending “less than 50” troops, far from the frontlines, is considered a worthwhile idea. But these same defense officials noted that this is a war without many good options.
One defense official called it a “half-measured” approach. Another responded with a shrug. Still others feared it could aggravate already fragile relations between Kurdish and Arab forces.
The most powerful Kurdish forces did not ask for this new U.S. help. Kurdish troops stationed there, known as the YPG, have repeatedly rejected advising, and asked instead for heavy arms and tanks. Moreover, they have said they want to fight only for cities and towns that fill gaps in what would be contiguous territory, areas different than what the U.S. wants them to fight for.
“I think it is a fine move, but it has to be connected to a broader strategic framework,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Beast.
“The problem with the administration’s policy so far is there have been an awful lot of moves that make sense in and of themselves but don’t fit into a broader strategy that can produce the results.”
Still others worried about mission creep. A senior defense official who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon on the condition of anonymity said the troops would not call in airstrikes or go to the front or even stay for a protracted period. Rather, they were there only to train and advise, the very same language the Pentagon used when it first sent a few hundred troops to Iraq a year ago. There are now 3,000 troops there, some of whom are fighting alongside Iraqis.
The official could not rule out a change in the tasks assigned to the SOF after they arrive in Syria.
The idea of sending advisers originated from U.S. Central Command—the military wing responsible for the Middle East—and Special Operations Forces on the ground. It was then recommended by the president’s national security team, a U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast. The senior defense official said the hope is that seeing local fighters “face-to-face” will build a relationship that can help the war against ISIS.
“This is a start to gauge what is possible,” the official added.
In the long term the U.S. hopes the advisers can convince and guide the roughly 30,000 YPG troops, along with the 5,000-man Syrian Arab Coalition, to go after ISIS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, in what would amount to the fiercest battle of the war against ISIS.
“The SOF guys are enamored with that idea because they don’t have any options,” explained one pessimistic Defense Department adviser who works on the U.S. campaign.
This month, the U.S. delivered 50 tons of ammunition, which was intended to reach the Arab fighters but is believed to also have ended up with the Kurds. The drop marked the first salvo in a U.S. military shift toward Raqqa, ISIS’s capital since 2013.
“We are started dropping ammo. [The arrival of advisers] gives us an opportunity to help local forces develop good plans and better integrate their ground operations with our air operations,” a defense official told The Daily Beast.
The forces will be stationed at a “quasi headquarters” for fighters there, the senior defense official told reporters, but did not say where. The safest place would be at the far northeast corner of Syria, behind the Kurdish YPG forces, which the U.S. considers the best forces capable of going after Raqqa.
But the YPG have repeatedly said they are not enthusiastic about fighting for Raqqa. Indeed, just this month, one fighter reportedly said Raqqa is “not that important.” Kurdish fighters said they do not see the city as vital in their effort to carve contiguous Kurdish territory in Syria. It is unclear how much a bevy of Special Operations Forces could change their calculus.
By supporting Kurds, the U.S. could shake the already fragile relationship between the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition, which has a patina of mutual distrust.
“They are going to help the YPG, which can be counterproductive because the Arabs in the area, even if they don’t like ISIS, will have great antipathy toward the U.S. helping the Kurds. It will be an aggravator,” the adviser explained.
The U.S. decision comes just days after Turkey, a supposed U.S. ally in the war that vehemently opposes Kurdish expansion in Syria, launched air attacks in that area, purportedly striking YPG forces. The American presence is likely to deter any future strikes against what the U.S. military considers the best fighting force.
Talk of shifting the U.S. approach began this fall as its push to train 5,400 Syria rebel fighters failed, producing fewer than 150 troops and leading to American equipment ending up in dubious hands.
In congressional testimony this week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hinted at the new effort when he said that Raqqa would be the growing focus of the anti-ISIS campaign.
In the latest iteration of the war effort, defense officials believe that if Iraqi Security Forces can make a push on the ISIS stronghold of Ramadi and if the Kurds hit Raqqa, then it will become impossible for ISIS to defend its other main holdings, like its Iraqi capital, Mosul.
It’s the kind of strategy that counts on an awful lot going right for the U.S. and its allies—more of a hope than a plan, in other words. Because so far in this campaign, that kind of good luck has been in short supply.