U.S. Troops in Syria? It’s More Than Likely
Lost in the hullaballoo last week arising from President Donald Trump’s comments about alleged terrorism in Sweden and the size of crowds at his rallies, was a story with far-reaching implications for Kurds fighting in Syria.
According to a report by CNN, the Pentagon is considering the option of sending conventional forces to Syria. The addition of U.S. ground forces would be part of a plan developed by the Defense Department that would ratchet up the fight against Daesh – often referred to in the West as ISIS.
In late January, President Trump ordered key cabinet members, intelligence officials, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch a 30-day review of U.S. strategy in the war against Islamic State, a move he said would lead to the fulfillment of stated American policy: “That ISIS be defeated.”
The results of that review and any proposals it prompts are due by the end of February for the president’s consideration.
To be clear, increased U.S. ground forces might not be the only action suggested in the proposal. On background, Pentagon officials say some of the options being weighed include increasing the number of U.S. air and missiles strikes against Daesh-held positions, sending more U.S. special forces to Syria to augment the more than 400 Green Berets and SEALs already there, or providing more small arms, artillery, and ammunition to the Kurdish YPG fighters.
But what’s clear is the Trump administration is far more willing to take risks and make bold moves in Syria than the Obama administration.
True, it was President Obama who launched Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014, a coalition of 17 nations as well the Kurdish ground forces and Syrian anti-Assad fighters who have battled Daesh relentlessly.
But the Obama White House limited the aid sent to the YPG – at first, the U.S. provided only food and pick-up trucks to the fighters. In addition, the Obama administration treated the Kurdish fighters like they were security contractors, surrogates who helped the U.S. avoid a large-scale commitment of American ground forces to the bloody conflict in that war-torn country.
It’s still an open question exactly what the Pentagon brass will propose. But keep the following in mind.
First of all, whatever you think of President Trump politics, the man keeps his promises. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly said he had a plan to defeat ISIS and that one of his first acts as president would be a review of U.S. strategy toward the jihadi threat.
Promise made, promise kept – that what’s happening right now.
Secondly, it’s clear that a pattern is developing. When it comes to U.S. defense policy, the Trump administration keeps plans first laid by the Obama administration but steps them up considerably.
For example, the YPG eventually received increased military aid via the CIA and proxy nations – a tortuous supply chain, but one that Obama reluctantly blessed.
There’s no evidence that the current review will result in the Trump administration scrapping that arrangement. In fact, if anything the Pentagon will recommend direct aid.
The outlook for the YPG receiving increased U.S. lethal aid including possible helicopter and artillery support from U.S. forces looks good.
Frankly, the YPG is a powerful military force essential to the defeat of Daesh. That puts the Kurds in an excellent negotiating position – one that the Pentagon would be hard-pressed to ignore.
The Trump administration has even kept an Obama-era holdover noted for his support of the Syrian Kurds: Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition. McGurk has long argued for increasing the flow of arms and other war-fighting material to the YPG.
During the Munich Security Conference, McGurk met with Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani and assured him that the U.S. would offer “multifaceted” military, political, and economic support.
Yes, the conversation was a diplomatic prelude to the attack against Daesh-held western Mosul in which the Peshmerga comprise a significant part of the Iraqi forces and no one mentioned Syria in public.
But the members of the YPG must be thinking, “Our turn will come soon.”
Finally, if the Pentagon wants to send troops to Syria there is already an ideal force in the region. More than 1,800 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team are currently in Iraq as trainers and advisors to security forces there.
The Military Times reported last week that another 2,000 soldiers from the brigade combat team might join the contingent.
If they go to Syria, members of 2nd BCT would be formidable. Part of America’s most elite rapid deployment force, the team comprises airborne infantry, artillery, engineers, and support specialists.
And if the U.S. sends them, the Pentagon will also provide air cover in the form of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
There’s no doubt that a U.S. mission to Syria would be dicey. The chances for significant American casualties in the biggest U.S. military operation since the Iraq War are high.
In addition, the diplomatic situation would be nightmare. The U.S. would need to figure out a way to assist the YPG, fight Daesh, and win – all within close proximity of Russian forces in Syria dedicated to the survival of the Assad government.
Russian armor and Russian surface-to-air missiles are potent threats against U.S. troops and assets. Despite Trump’s oft-repeated statements that he wants better relations with the Russian Federation in order to mount a joint fight against ISIS, currently the mood between Washington and the Kremlin is dismal at best.
And then there is Turkey, a NATO ally that believes when it comes to Syria it is poorly treated by the United States. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which both Turkey and the United States deem a terrorist group.
One possible result: Increased U.S. support of the YPG could hurtle Turkey and America’s Kurdish allies into open warfare in Syria, adding to the bloodshed.
Somehow, the U.S. would need to reassure Ankara that further American support of the YPG does not threaten Turkish regional interests – perhaps an impossible task.
Whatever the Pentagon recommends, there is little doubt that it will be far more daring than any U.S. policy in place since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014. That’s the Trump way of war.
One thing is also for certain: If the U.S. sends ground forces to Syria it will be a game-changing event not only in the fight against Daesh but also in the Syrian Kurds fight to obtain peace and security in that troubled land.
It’s a game the YPG dreams of winning.
Paul R. Huard is an award-winning journalist who covers military history and national security issues for daily newspapers and online publications. His work appears in the National Interest, the (Portland, Oregon, USA) Oregonian, RealClearDefense, RealClearHistory, RealClearPolitics, War Is Boring, War On The Rocks—Molotov Cocktail, and We Are The Mighty. Follow him on Twitter at @paul_huard and at his Web site The Pen and The Sword (www.paulrhuard.com).