There’s a lot of confusion about the announcement by the White House late last week about the upcoming deployment of U.S. special operations forces to Syria, especially after President Obama repeatedly promised — going back to 2013 — no “boots on the ground.”
If you’re perplexed by the news, don’t feel bad, there’s no shortage of people who are mystified by Team Obama’s “strategy” — and I use that word cautiously — in the Syria-Iraq theater of operations.
But let’s take a minute here to take in what the White House is saying about the deployment before we pass judgment on the decision.
First, this is part of the new approach that the Pentagon announced a week ago in a congressional hearing. (See my Oct. 29 Boston Herald column, “At last, Obama ups game in Mideast wars.”)
The purpose of the deployment of 50 special ops forces to Syria supposedly is to “train, advise and assist” anti-Islamic State (aka ISIS) groups in their mission — an effort that so far has broadly stagnated, creating a stalemate.
Our forces reportedly will work directly with Syrian Arab, Kurdish and other militias to improve their fighting capabilities against ISIS, especially with an eye toward putting pressure directly on the caliphate’s “capital,” Raqqa.
The U.S. troops will be deployed on a 60-day rotational basis from camps in Kurdish areas in Iraq to an anti-ISIS coalition “headquarters” in Kurdish areas in Syria, according to press accounts.
While U.S. forces won’t be on the front lines, they will, of course, be in harm’s way. They’ll defend themselves and, undoubtedly, will have U.S. firepower just a radio call away — from the likes of A-10 “Warthog” attack aircraft deployed to Turkey.
Of course, the big question is: Will these special operations forces boots on the ground make a difference in the ongoing conflict? Despite the “awesomeness” of our troops, the answer is “no” in the short-term, but “maybe” in the longer term.
First, when our guys arrive within the next month or so, they’ll be gathering information on the ground. U.S. “eyes and ears on the problem” could help Team Obama’s decision makers to formulate policy, which so far has been generally lackluster.
Plus, coaching, training and informing anti-ISIS forces on how to rock Raqqa and other targets could be beneficial. Strikes on the Islamic State capital could wipe out leadership and force its foot soldiers back from across the Islamist “empire” to defend the city.
Attacks could also be a bone-crunching body blow psychologically to ISIS with its internal and external audiences, possibly knocking it to its knees as well as knocking out perceptions of its invincibility and long-term viability.
You can’t help but wonder why we’ve waited so long to do this.
But while it’s a new measure, it’s also a limited one, in a less-than-comprehensive White House Syria game plan that once again depends largely on the will, abilities and efforts of little-understood outside groups to advance American interests.
(Like the Pentagon’s ill-fated Syrian rebel training program.)
Indeed, the potential outcome of this special forces mission could be as little as the realization that this anti-ISIS coalition can’t roll Raqqa, which while informative, leaves us little better off than we were before in efforts aimed as defeating the Islamic State — a presidential priority.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter.
This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald