President Obama is announcing Friday that the U.S. will deploy a small number of special operations forces to Syria to advise rebel forces fighting against ISIS. The number of troops involved is expected to be in the range of 20 to 30, but the move, which was foreshadowed in comments by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter earlier this week, is a major political shift from the president, who had vowed at the outset that the U.S. operation against ISIS would “not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
As Anne Barnard of the New York Times notes, the troops are most likely to work with the Kurdish-led forces currently fighting to reach ISIS’s capital, Raqqa, in Eastern Syria. Since Russia began its air campaign to aid Bashar al-Assad’s forces in western Syria, and the Pentagon’s program to train “moderate” rebels in that conflict proved a dismal failure, the White House has indicated that it is shifting its attention to the east, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has little presence and where the Kurds and some allied Arab forces have had more success against ISIS. But U.S. efforts to supply these forces with weapons from the air have already gone awry, possibly leading to today’s decision to send in hands-on advisers. Given the dispiriting U.S. track record when it comes to training foreign forces, as recently discussed by my colleague Fred Kaplan, some skepticism is warranted.
The battlefield in Syria is getting substantially more international, with American troops now joining the Iranian and Hezbollah forces, Russian “volunteers” already on the ground, not to mention al-Qaida and ISIS’s substantial contingents of foreign fighters. The Americans on the ground are likely to steer well clear of the Russians and Assad’s forces, further dividing the Syrian battlefield in two. It’s looking increasingly likely that Syria will not emerge from the current conflict as a unified state, or at least not one within its current internationally recognized borders.
White House officials will doubtlessly deny that this is a major shift in strategy and emphasize that it’s only a handful of troops. But as the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman pointed out a few weeks ago when the White House reluctantly agreed to start directly supplying rebel forces with weapons, it often seems like Obama ends up doing what his most hawkish critics are urging him to do, just years later when it’s likely to be far less effective:
Given the number of times that Obama has already expanded U.S. involvement in the conflict, there’s no reason to believe that America’s “boots on the ground” in Syria will be limited to this small group going forward.