Amidst all the recent discussion of an American military response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against rebel forces, there lies a second, less-discussed red line: under what conditions would the White House employ U.S. ground forces, as opposed to a purely airpower-based campaign, in Syria, and what role would they play?
Putting aside political considerations for the moment, it is still reasonable to presume that the scale and nature of our involvement in Syria would less resemble Iraq or Afghanistan than Libya or Kosovo. But while a colossal operation like the invasion of Iraq is thankfully unimaginable, it is possible that the White House may decide to place special operations forces (SOF) on the ground in Syria. Conventional wisdom would view this as an escalation over a "bombs only" approach to U.S. involvement, but considering a limited, special operations ground force could inject sanity, clarity, and urgency to the policy debate and serve as a counterweight to the prevailing drone war logic and its false sterility.
Revisiting the Balkan wars may be a useful reminder about the limits of airpower. At the outset of the war in Kosovo in 1999 it was presumed that Serbia would concede after a few days of NATO bombardment, yet Serb forces held their positions for ten weeks using dispersion, decoys, and camouflage to thwart attempts to target them. The NATO bombardment did not cause the Serb armed forces to crumble or surrender but it did exact a heavy toll on the civil infrastructure of Serbia, punishing the populace as much as the military. Serbian forces did not withdraw due to the air campaign but when the imminent threat of ground invasion and a lack of Russian support made their position untenable. While Syria’s situation is quite different, there are reasons to believe a U.S. air campaign by itself would be similarly stymied and do little to end the bloodshed or the war.
The problem with a purely airpower based intervention is that it will be bloody but ineffective due to the fragmented urban nature of the war in Syria. While the Syrian tanks and artillery being used against rebel strongholds are located on military bases vulnerable to U.S. air strikes, it has also deeply interspersed its military and paramilitary forces within heavily populated areas as its main effort. As someone who has interviewed many Syrian deserters over the past few months, I can say with sad certainty that many of those hapless conscripts on whom U.S. bombs will fall are as much prisoners of the regime as the rest of the Syrian population. Over the last two years, the regime has shown a willingness to indiscriminately target civilians and sacrifice its own recruits, so it is a near certainty that Assad will expose his forces to make a U.S. bombing campaign as photogenically bloody as possible.
The second problem with only fighting from the air, is the desperate conviction of the governing Alawite minority to sustain the war at all costs because they have come to view surrender as a death sentence. Regime propaganda has fed them a view of the resistance, supported by heart-eating Youtube clips, that they are fighting for their very survival and any means have become justified. The more brutal their actions, the more self-fulfilling this logic becomes. The Serbian government was willing to concede Kosovo to save the Serbian homeland, but the Assad regime has already let Syria burn to save itself and it is still fighting over the ashes.
Any U.S.-led intervention begins with more ugliness. Before we could even begin bombing targets of ‘strategic value’ any air campaign would start by suppressing Syrian air defenses, which means using hundreds of bombs and missiles to destroy radar installations, surface to air missile sites, and anti-aircraft artillery, inevitably killing untold numbers of civilians without furthering the cause of the resistance at all. After this comes the sordid business of finding regime targets to bomb amid the fog of the Syrian battlefield along with the inevitable civilian deaths (‘collateral damage’ being the nauseating euphemism, as if damaged buildings and dead children wind up on the same bill of sale). The "bombs only" approach says that this protracted butchery has a good enough chance of ending the war and that it is worth playing it cheap to minimize our own losses. In Libya, with the concentration of power in Qaddafi’s inner circle and his tactical vulnerability, this approach was successful. The White house has clearly understood the differences between Libya and Syria in the recent past but it may not hurt to remind them of it again now, when it counts most.
The Advantages of a Special Operations Forces Approach Over an Airpower Based Intervention.
The threshold for using ground forces remains a White House secret but some of the roles a SOF ground force would play are clear from our doctrine and history. The initial insertion would likely not be that dangerous—if we can safely deploy a 76-year-old maverick U.S. senator onto rebel held territory, it should be doable for an experienced Special Forces group. After insertion, the SOF operators first task would not be frontline fighting but linking up with rebel forces, coordinating different rebel elements, and directing their efforts toward the most concerted strategic effect with the goal of winning and ending the war. This kind of work cannot be accomplished in hotel rooms in Doha, it require professional soldiers on the battlefield accepting risks. For example, it was a small group of special operations soldiers that linked-up with Hamid Karzai in 2001 and helped him to organize forces against the Taliban.
If we send SOF into Syria it won’t be like the movies with Navy SEALs raiding Assad’s headquarters and a big firefight as the finale. The real work of special operations requires veteran sergeants and junior officers advising rebel leaders, coordinating their resupply, ensuring the protection of the civilian population, relaying intelligence, providing medical treatment, securing humanitarian relief, and planning for the transition to civilian political authority. Add to SOF’s already extensive list of tasks that they may have to prevent war crimes (or merely abandon war criminals as unsuitable partners) and avoid rebel groups hostile to American forces or ambushes by government infiltrators. U.S. special operations forces on the ground can also gather information from locals and use them to choose targets more effectively and prevent civilian casualties. And finally, yes, they would be fighting shoulder to shoulder with their partners in the Free Syrian Army with all the danger that entails. Whether the rebel leadership is an able partner for all this is a separate question, and the more important question, but if we are ready to drop bombs on Syria perhaps we have already decided that they are.
As we may recall from the photo of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993, a small special operations force can be terribly vulnerable and its failures, like the failed rescue of our hostages in Iran in 1980, can be a global humiliation. But if the U.S. chooses to enter a war, there are times when this amount of risk is warranted because the difference between twelve special operators and an American tank battalion is the difference, in the eye of the Syrian seeing them on his street, between the assistance of an ally and the occupation of a foreigner.
And the assistance of a few hundred U.S. and Allied special operations forces could be the difference between a few bloody weeks of fighting before the post-Assad phase of the war (peace might not be the correct word for it) or a year of slowly bleeding the regime with bombers and drones while the Syrian people remain locked in the vise. As the commentator consensus puts it, there are no good options right now for the Obama administration on Syria, but some are more cynical than others and if Syria becomes America’s newest drone war, it is not because we seek its end as quickly as possible and it is not because we value Syrian life so dearly. It is because without Americans on the ground, we can all be counted on to change the channel.