What message Obama is sending in Syria

President Obama’s decision to send up to 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria isn't a huge statement. But it's something. 

Brendan Smialowski/Reuters
(L. to r.) Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and US Secretary of State John Kerry hold a news conference at the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Oct. 30, 2015. The United States disclosed plans on Friday to station the first American boots on the ground in Syria in the war against Islamic State fighters, saying dozens of Special Forces troops would be sent as advisers to groups fighting against the jihadists.

No military power, not even the United States, can change the course of a civil war in some distant land by putting 50 pairs of boots on the ground.

But what such a small deployment can accomplish is to send messages.

In that sense, President Obama’s decision to send up to 50 Special Operations Forces to northern Syria to work with Kurdish and Arab opposition groups in their 4-year-old bid to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is essentially a political statement.

Above all, the deployment tells the Russians – who have solidified their place in international efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict after five weeks of pro-Assad airstrikes – that the US now has skin in the game and thus is that much more determined to influence the steps ahead in Syria.

By putting US forces on the ground, Mr. Obama “signals to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that ... ‘we’re not just going to sit by as you set the parameters’ ” for some form of military settlement in Syria, says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.

Beyond the Russians, it signals to other key players, including the Iranians, the Saudis, and the opposition forces growing increasingly doubtful of US support, that the US is not turning its back, Mr. Sayigh says. “This is just enough to keep sending signals, to the opposition as much as anything else,” he says.

In particular, after the US announcement last month that it was pulling the plug on a half-billion-dollar effort to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, the deployment tells the opposition that the US remains in the game on its side – though modestly, Sayigh says.

“It says, ‘We are involved, and here’s some material proof of this, but we’ll remain very cautious about it,” he says.

The US deployment is also about shoring up those opposition forces that have been the most successful at pushing back fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Some military analysts, however, are already saying that 50 troops won’t be enough.

A seat at the table

But Obama’s announcement of troops on the ground in Syria can be seen largely as a political signal, which was reinforced by the timing. The statement about the deployment came the same day that Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting in Vienna with regional and international powers as part of an effort to find a way out of Syria’s devastating conflict.

The gathering Friday marked the first time all the major external players in the Syrian conflict – including the Iranians – sat down at the same table. Despite that, virtually no one close to the Vienna talks believes a path to a political transition will open up anytime soon.

About the best anyone foresees over the course of the coming months is a possible military truce that would have the merit of at least reducing the heavy civilian casualties that have prompted a mass exodus from Syria.

“I don’t see a political solution coming out of the current negotiations, but maybe, maybe, maybe an armed truce,” Sayigh says. A cease-fire would be a “win-win” for the US and Russia because it would have the effect of keeping the Assad regime in place (score one for Russia) while “putting a stop to the bloodshed” – something Sayigh says Secretary Kerry and the US would count as a victory.

Civilian casualties would indeed be expected to fall sharply under an Assad-opposition truce, since the Assad regime – which continues to drop barrel bombs on pro-opposition neighborhoods – is considered responsible for the bulk of civilian deaths.

A truce that held might over time reduce the flow of refugees out of the region toward Europe, if large numbers of Syrians decided they would be just as well off back in their country as they are now in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where living conditions continue to deteriorate.

But a truce would not involve IS – and therefore would presumably not completely sideline the Kurdish and other groups that the US Special Operations Forces will be advising on battling IS.

Fifty today, 3,000 tomorrow?

Some military analysts say the US will discover soon enough that 50 troops won’t be enough to make much difference in the fight against IS in Syria – with some predicting that something closer to the 3,000 troops now advising the Iraqi military on its counter-IS offensives will have to be deployed in Syria.

In announcing the Syria deployment, administration officials did not rule out reinforcements at some point down the line. But this week, Obama did try to make the case that Americans should not see this deployment as anything like the US engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US soldiers fought and died on the front lines.

Speaking to NBC News Monday, the president vowed to keep combat troops out of Syria, saying the days of US involvement in Middle East wars with “battalions and occupations” are over.

The question will remain whether 50 soldiers can make a difference against IS – or send a convincing message.

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