What 250 more Special Forces in Syria can do

ISIS is making enemies in Syria, and there's a need to ramp up efforts to train them. That's where the new Special Operations forces fit in. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama speaks during his visit to Hanover, Germany, Tuesday.

President Obama’s announcement Monday that 250 Special Operations Forces will be headed to Syria suggests that a “start small” approach to combatting the Islamic State might be showing signs of promise.

Last fall, Mr. Obama sent 50 special operators to Syria as trainers as “a proof of concept of sorts,” says Melissa Dalton, a former intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The goal was to see if the United States could use the training to gain traction with Kurdish fighters and Arab Sunnis on the ground, she says.

On Monday, Obama offered his verdict, saying that the expertise of the Special Operations Forces already in Syria “has been critical as local forces have driven [the Islamic State] out of key areas.” 

Monday’s decision, then, appears to be an attempt to hit the fast forward button.

It “seems to reflect that this proof of concept works,” adds Ms. Dalton. “There’s been some positive momentum built up, with the idea now being, ‘OK, if we expand that out a bit further – multiply the amount of trainers in the country – then perhaps we can multiply the effects.' ”

There are questions. At a time when a diplomatic cease-fire is faltering, the US seems to be doubling down on a military strategy, even as it has failed to define what a realistic end state might be, Dalton says. 

“Where are we building to? Is this the first of many plus-ups happening incrementally – and to what end?”

But building out the program bit by bit makes sense, say others. It gives the US the potential to empower anti-Islamic State forces in a proven way without becoming embroiled in a Mideast war.

In this case, “incrementalism is the right approach,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East analyst at the Center for a New American Security. 

Monday’s decision mirrored another made last week, with more US troops on their way to Iraq in newly-expanded roles that will bring them “closer to the action,” as Defense Secretary Ash Carter put it. 

With Obama making no secret of his desire to keep US out of another war in the Middle East, this increase in Syria from 50 to 300 Special Operations Forces is seen as a relatively low-risk gambit.

In the past, the US has made much more grandiose efforts at fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Before the US sent over its 50 special operators last fall, it attempted a $500 million effort to train Syrian anti-ISIS forces. The result: “four or five” fighters on the battlefield, Gen. Lloyd Austin told Congress last September.

But still, the Syrian rebels in the program were “getting terrific training,” Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon’s policy chief, assured lawmakers. 

The answer was to pivot to the 50 special operators, who have worked on refining their message to potential recruits. 

“They are explaining the benefits: They get training, they get US airstrike support, US logistical support, and the tacit idea that while ISIS is the primary objective, the US isn’t going to complain if these groups fight back against” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Heras says.

The trainers have also had some success in expanding the number of Syrian Arabs within the Syrian Democratic Forces, Heras adds. 

That’s important in building some degree of trust among anti-ISIS forces. Kurds have proven to be US forces’ most-reliable partners, but Syrian Arabs distrust them – to the point that Sunni Arab families were fleeing deeper into ISIS-held territory for fear of Kurdish forces, Amnesty International reports. The Kurdish forces were accused of ethnic cleansing and forcibly removing Sunni Arabs from their homes. 

Kurdish forces ultimately want an autonomous region of their own within Syria, a goal that many Sunni Arabs do not support, notes Jenny Cafarella, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War. 

But a greater ethnic mix of forces battling ISIS could help in the long run. If these troops can ultimately take back control of their hometowns, then they must find a way to live together and govern – an even trickier proposition than winning on the battlefield. 

And the pool of recruits is growing.

In the first train-and-equip mission, the emphasis was on fighters that had been recommended by Syrians on the ground, often with the Turks acting as intermediaries. 

Now, the latest pool includes “guys who were expelled from ISIS-controlled territory, so they have a sense of vengeance – they’re on a mission,” Heras says. “For them, it’s ISIS that’s the major impediment to them being able to go back home, to build up their own government,” he adds. “For them, it’s ISIS that’s the main enemy.”  

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