The White House announced Friday that the US is going to deploy Special Forces personnel to Syria. The announcement specified that these SF personnel, described as intending to number less than 50, are going there as advisers to moderate rebel groups fighting against ISIS/ISIL.
Today, President Obama faced questions from NBC Nightly News about his September 2013 pledge to not put troops on the ground in Syria. Back then, President Obama had stated, “My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.”
In the short interview, the President contended that this announcement is only an extension of the already existing practice of other special operations missions into Syria, but that as the Commander in Chief, he has no intention of changing the scope or mission of the operation and returning it to that of Iraq, pre-2012.
I do not expect this effort to degrade or diminish ISIL, or to bring ISIL to the diplomatic table that President Obama has described as the only solution for the conflict. Previous American efforts to train, equip and deploy moderate rebels fighting against ISIL have failed, and in October, the Pentagon announced that it was abandoning its project for doing so after spending $500 million, declaring it “a more difficult endeavor than we assumed.”
But one key element that did come out of that program, on which I would expect to see further expansion of American special operations effort, was the inclusion of working with Kurdish factions and groups. Further evidence of American willingness to work with Kurdish groups came with the 19 October death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, an alleged Delta operative advising Kurdish / peshmerga forces south of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Like that mission, the US has a long history of working with the Kurdish Regional Government and with peshmerga forces associated with both the KDP/Barzani and PUK/Talabani parties / tribes.
I say this, as there are little to no Sunni groups interested in working with the United States. At the heart of the collapse of the failed Pentagon / CIA program to train, equip and deploy “moderate” Syrians was the problem of finding established Sunni factions interested in partnering with the United States. Barring such groups, identified individuals seemed interested in being trained, equipped and then deploying into Syria, before sometimes handing over their equipment, or outright joining other established groups.
Finding, or creating, Sunni groups with which to partner is critical. The US is keenly interested in finding moderate Sunni, as they could or should be opposed to both ISIL and the current Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s regime and the Syrian Ba’ath party have dominated Syrian both Syrian and Syrian politics since the post-UAR mid-1960’s, and has enjoyed close relations with Iran since the Camp David Accords drive a wedge between Syria and Egypt, and the Iranian revolution of 1979. The US is grasping for straws, hoping to find some Sunni element that will form a foundation for taking on both elements, ISIL and the regime.
But until then, expect to see more operations by boots on the ground partnering with Kurdish forces operating from Northern Syria. It’s the best the Americans are going to do, even though it will not achieve the president’s stated objective bringing ISIL to the discussions for a diplomatic resolution. It is, though, something that can be done. And that, I fear, is where we are headed.