The 400 Marines dispatched to northern Syria last week to back up US-trained rebel forces battling the so-called Islamic State were plunked down into a war of acute risk and geopolitical complexity that is entering its seventh year.
Little fanfare accompanied announcement of the relatively diminutive deployment of an advanced artillery unit and support forces – a mission that brings to about 700 the total number of US troops on the ground in Syria, where a brutal civil war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants and displaced millions.
Yet the Marines could end up being the bridgehead of a much larger US stabilization force that would hold a swath of eastern Syria once IS, or ISIS, is routed from its self-declared capital in Raqqa.
Whether by strategic design or not, the US appears to be pivoting away from the hands-off approach to Syria that former President Barack Obama pursued for years as part of his determination to keep the US from further Middle East entanglements.
Mr. Obama was only partially successful in resisting the gravitational pull of the region’s military conflicts. What worries some regional experts now is that the Trump administration could be succumbing to that pull – deepening US military involvement in Syria and exposing US forces and interests to the many risks of a highly complicated conflict – without an articulated policy encompassing both the military and diplomatic strategies for US engagement in Syria.
“The US deployment is small so far, but it will probably grow, and it makes us a part of the game for the Middle East that Obama was reluctant to participate in,” says Andrew Tabler, a fellow specializing in Syria and US policy in the Levant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The battle for Raqqa has yet to commence. And once it does, it likely will take months to defeat IS in its Syrian stronghold, much as the battle to wrest Mosul from IS in neighboring Iraq has taken months and is not yet over.
But regional analysts say the deployment of Marines to back up US-supported local forces in the imminent Raqqa operation is the latest sign of an expanding US footprint in Syria.
Moreover, that expanding footprint could be one more signal that the US is considering the option of eventually sending in a much larger transitional force in the post-IS period to secure eastern Syria and head off the kind of power vacuum that helped give rise to the Islamic State in the first place, some experts say.
Mandate to hold territory
“This is a significant expansion of the US presence in northeastern Syria that entails all kinds of risks and complexities, not the least of which is the very complicated web of actors that are operating in the same space as the US,” says Nicholas Heras, Bacevich Fellow in Middle East Security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“The dilemma for the US,” he adds, “is that its success in working with some of the most effective local forces battling the Islamic State could leave it with a mandate to hold and control a large area of eastern Syria.”
That helps explain why some opponents of another US military foray into the Middle East cried “Mission creep!” upon learning of the small deployment of Marines.
US special forces numbering in the low 100s have been in operation in Syria for more than a year, mostly training and advising Kurdish and Sunni Arab Syrian militias. But early in March a unit of Stryker heavily armored vehicles was deployed to the town of Manbij in northern Syria to head off potential confrontations between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab forces and the US-trained Kurdish factions crammed into the area.
At the time, a US military spokesman described the Stryker deployment to Manbij – perhaps the first time the US military carried out an operation in war-torn Syria with the Stars and Stripes unfurled – as a “deliberate action to reassure our coalition members and partner forces … and ensure all parties remain focused on defeating our common enemy, ISIS.”
Another indication of US contemplation of a post-Raqqa stabilization force came last week when the chief of the US Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that a more substantial deployment of forces to secure and hold territory seized from IS is not out of the question.
Complex diplomatic environment
“I think as we move more towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements, perhaps,” General Votel said.
If the battle to take back Mosul is any guide, it might not be until the end of the year that Raqqa falls and a stabilization force would be needed, regional experts say.
But in the meantime, the ramping up of US forces in Syria adds another powerful actor to Syria’s mix and deepens the diplomatic complexities the Syrian conflict presents.
To understand the big-picture complexity as well as why the artillery unit assigned to assist in the approaching Raqqa battle faces a particularly risky and complex task, it helps to picture the environment those 400 Marines will operate in.
In an area no bigger than some US counties, forces from more than a dozen countries, militias, and rebel groups are also in operation, ranging from Turkish, Russian, and Iranian forces to Kurdish Syrians, rebel armies including some affiliated with Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah.
And that doesn’t include the Syrian government forces that are also fighting to take back territory in the area.
The battlefield map explains why some regional experts say the expanding US footprint in Syria poses a range of dangers that are not limited to physical risks but extend to heightened chances of confrontations that could have deep diplomatic repercussions for the US.
Military without the political
Mr. Heras notes, for example, that the US is working closely with the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, much to the dismay of NATO ally Turkey, which considers the Kurdish fighters terrorists.
What happens if the Marines mistakenly target positions of the Syrian armed forces, Russia’s ally, or what would the US do if the Marines came under attack from, say, Iranian-backed forces? As just one example, earlier this month Russian jets struck US-backed Syrian Arab forces in close proximity to Syrian government forces – supposedly in error, but the incident led to tensions.
If anything, the Washington Institute’s Mr. Tabler says he is more concerned that the US military footprint will continue to expand without adequate thought to the potential political ramifications – including outcomes the US does not want to see in Syria.
“I’m a little bit worried about the US getting in there with a counter-ISIL strategy that further empowers Iran and brings about an Al Qaeda 4.0 or a new version of the Islamic State,” Tabler says, using another acronym for IS. “A military strategy without a political strategy can lead to big problems as we’ve seen before, but we don’t have a political strategy as far as I can see.”
If the US does end up providing stabilization forces post-Raqqa, it won’t be because the US military is itching to do it, experts say, but because there would be no other option for securing largely Sunni Arab eastern Syria and preventing it from again falling into extremists’ hands.
“It’s a real possibility you could have an American mandate over eastern Syria,” says CNAS’s Heras – “not because the US wants it, but because there would be no other foreign actor with the ability to hold and stabilize that territory.”
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The Assad regime doesn’t have the forces to hold parts of the country it hasn’t controlled in years, and the Sunni Arab population wouldn’t easily accept either government forces or Kurdish forces even if they were up to the task.
US strategy for the post-Raqqa period may become clearer at a major conference the State Department will host next week of some 60 members – nations and international organizations – of the counter-IS coalition. In late February the Pentagon delivered plans to the White House for defeating IS within a year, but details of the plan have not been forthcoming.
Heras says he does not expect the conference to serve as the rollout of a new counter-IS strategy, but he does anticipate the Trump administration using it as a “celebrate and signal” event: celebrating recent gains against IS, including in the Mosul campaign, and “signaling to some degree where the US intends to go next.”
That leaves Tabler uneasy, he says, because what he’s hearing tells him the US is focusing on its military strategy as its Syria footprint grows while forgetting the complex “day after” ramifications of that expanded US involvement.
“What everything we’re hearing tells me is that the US has no political plan,” Tabler says. “And when we have no political plan, we know we get into trouble.”