Upon taking office on January 20th and before his Secretary of Defense designate retired four-star General James Mattis was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, President Trump ordered a plan for being of the termination of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) aka the Islamic State be on his desk within 30-days. And with that, whether by strategic design or not, the Trump administration appears to be pivoting away from the hands-off approach to Syria that Barack Obama pursued for years. Experts say the U.S. deployment likely will grow.
The 400-plus U.S. Marines dispatched to northern Syria last week to back up U.S.-trained rebel forces battling the Islamic State were plunked down into a war of acute risk and geopolitical complexity that is now entering its seventh year, albeit chaos and failure. Much if not totally the result of the Obama administration’s complacency, incompetence, and risk-averse approach to fighting radical Islamic terrorists, let alone its failure and total incapability to name and identify the enemy it is – radical-Islamic terrorists.
Little fanfare accompanied announcement of the relatively diminutive deployment of an advanced artillery unit and support forces – a mission that brings to about 700 the total number of U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, where a brutal civil war has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants and displaced millions. Keep in mind, U.S. special operations forces have been involved in the battle against ISIS in both northern Iraq and in Syria for over a years, but not so in as much as conducting the level and extent that the Trump administration is planning. Prior to now much of their actions were limited to intelligence collection and reconnaissance, calling in airstrikes (Joint Terminal Attack), coordination and planning support, and hostage rescue, among other classified requirements.
Yet the Marines, I very well anticipate being just the initial bridgehead of a much larger U.S. strike and stabilization force that would annihilate ISIS and then hold a large swath of eastern Syria once Islamic State government and ISIS elements are is routed from its self-declared capital in Raqqa. Certainly, the Government of Syria, along with even the Russians are incapable of such a wide and in-depth capability. In addition, there are other radical-elements to contend with in Syria to include, al-Qaeda’s affiliated al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), as well as at least 30 0ther loosely-knit Syrian opposition and affiliated rebel groups. The is also Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Republican Guard Corps. (IRGC) elements that would be anti-U.S.
Whether by strategic design or not, the U.S. appears to be pivoting away from the hands-off approach to Syria that former President Barack Obama pursued for years as part of his determination to keep the U.S. from further Middle East entanglements, and further reduce U.S. global engagement and national security power projection which was deliberately disregarded as a capability and necessary requirement to protect and safeguard U.S. and some of our closest allies interests in the Middle East and North Africa.
Former President Obama was extremely reluctant and resisted the gravitational pull of the region’s military conflicts. The consequence for U.S. regional policy and engagement cost the U.S. immensely in influence, relations in the way of trust and respect of allies, such as Jordan, Egypt and critically important partners. Most of all, it cost the U.S. heavily in our strategic national interests and responsibilities a superpower nation in the region. Some regional experts now worry that the Trump administration could be succumbing to that pull – deepening U.S. military involvement in Syria and exposing U.S. forces and interests to the many risks of a highly complicated conflict. It should be noted that where the Obama administration conducted its chaotic regional affairs without an articulated policy encompassing both the military and diplomatic strategies for U.S. engagement in Syria and the Middle East, the Trump administration made the lack thereof, a key and paramount component during its campaign; that being a coherent and strategic strategy for eviscerating radical-Islamic terror, namely ISIS along with a comprehensive policy of responsible foreign policy, diplomatic and military engagement, and an aggressive counter-terrorism policy to deal with al-Qaeda and other radical-Islamic terror and extremist groups.
While the current U.S. deployment is small so far, but it will inevitably grow, and it makes the U.S. once again a part of the game for the Middle East that Obama was reluctant to participate in or in reality relinquished our involvement that led to the current increase in terrorist activity, the civil war itself in Syria and the massive migration from the key regions of the Middle East and North Africa – all areas where both ISIS and al-Qaeda spread their tentacles of radical-Islamic terror.
The battle for Raqqa has yet to commence. And once it does, it likely will take months to defeat IS in its Syrian stronghold, much as the battle to wrest Mosul from IS in neighboring Iraq has taken months and is not yet over. But some regional analysts say the deployment of Marines to back up U.S.-supported local forces in the imminent Raqqa operation is the latest sign of an expanding U.S. footprint in Syria. Moreover, that expanding footprint could be one more signal that the U.S. is considering the option of eventually sending in a much larger transitional force in the post-IS period to secure eastern Syria and head off the kind of power vacuum that helped give rise to the Islamic State in the first place, some experts say.
Of course there are sensitive regional concerns that must be addressed and dealt with. As I noted, there will be a significant expansion of the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria that entails all kinds of risks and complexities not the least of which is the very complicated web of actors that are operating in the same space as the U.S. forces as well as other coalition partners. The dilemma for the U.S. is that its success in working with some of the most effective local forces battling the Islamic State could leave it with a mandate to hold and control a large area of eastern Syria. That helps explain why some opponents of another U.S. military foray into the Middle East cried “Mission creep” upon learning of the small deployment of Marines.
As I previously noted, U.S. special forces numbering in the low hundreds have been in operation in Syria for more than a year, mostly training and advising Kurdish and Sunni Arab Syrian militias. But early in March a unit of Stryker heavily armored vehicles was deployed to the town of Manbij in northern Syria to head off potential confrontations between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab forces and the U.S.-trained Kurdish factions crammed into the area. In this effort, the Trump administration deployed a U.S. Stryker unit into Manbij, Syria, just across the Turkish border, this is first time the U.S. military carried out a conventional ground operation in war-torn Syria with the Stars and Stripes unfurled – as a “deliberate action” to reassure our coalition members and partner forces and to ensure all parties remain focused on defeating our common enemy, ISIS.
Another indication of U.S. contemplation of a post-Raqqa stabilization force came last week when the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) Commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that a more substantial deployment of forces to secure and hold territory seized from IS, “… is not out of the question.” General Votel further noted; “I think as we move more towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements, perhaps.”
Understanding the gravity of the situation on the ground, the capability of coalition and partner forces, the reengagement of U.S. forces and policy regionally, as well as the capabilities of ISIS — this effort will certainly not be a quick or easy effort, both operationally or strategically. If the battle to take back Mosul is any guide, it might not be until the end of the year that Raqqa falls and understand that a sizable stabilization force would be needed.
In the meantime, the ramping up of U.S. forces in Syria adds another powerful actor to Syria’s mix and also deepens the diplomatic complexities the Syrian conflict presents. To understand the big-picture complexity as well as why the Marine artillery unit assigned to assist in the approaching Raqqa battle faces a particularly risky and complex task, it helps to picture the environment those 400 Marines will operate in. Operationally, in an area no bigger than some U.S. counties, forces from more than a dozen countries, militias, and rebel groups are also conducting an array of both coordinated and mostly uncoordinated operations — ranging from Turkish, Russian, and Iranian IRGC-element forces to Kurdish Syrians, a variety of rebel militias and insurgents including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. And that doesn’t include the Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad that are also fighting to take back territory in the area.
As a result, the battlefield map or order of battle in military parlance explains why some regional experts say the expanding U.S. footprint in Syria poses a range of dangers that are not limited to physical risks but extend to heightened chances of confrontations that could have deep diplomatic repercussions for the U.S. Conducting such operations and developing both a specific strategy; i.e. destroying ISIS, cannot be carried as just an operational military strategy without the necessary diplomatic and geo-political and regional engagement strategy that the Obama administration lacked. I prefer to say was clueless in understanding such a concept and hence the reason why the Middle East is in flames today and chaos abounds. A basic understanding such as that of the U.S. working closely with the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, much to the dismay of NATO ally Turkey, which considers the Kurdish fighters terrorists, is one problem set alone. Yet we worked with the same forces in northern Iraq during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Kurds have remained loyal to the U.S., despite being ignored by the Obama administration, which chose to back the Islamic-backed regime of President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
Strategic geo-political regional engagement linked with operational coordination, cooperation and force on force deconfliction is critical when we must consider such scenarios such as; what happens if the Marines mistakenly target positions of the Syrian armed forces, a Russian ally in the civil war, or what would the U.S. do if the Marines came under attack from Iranian-backed forces? As just one example, earlier this month Russian jets struck U.S.-backed Syrian Arab forces in close proximity to Syrian government forces – supposedly in error, but the incident led to tensions.
Other grand considerations at the strategic level that must be addressed and weighted are if anything, are concerns that some argue that the U.S. military footprint will continue to expand without adequate thought to the potential geo-political ramifications – including outcomes the U.S. does not want to see in Syria. This includes; ensuring that the U.S. counter-ISIS strategy, does not subsequently end-up further empowering Iran and brings about what some call an al-Qaeda 4.0, or result in a hybrid version of the Islamic State. This is why I have continued to maintain the need for a coherent regional Middle East strategic strategy, couple with the necessary regional military strategy for dealing with ISIS across the Middle East, and North Africa for that matter. A military strategy without a regional geo-political strategy can lead to big problems as we’ve seen before. Again, calling to mind the Obama administration’s lack thereof.
For a successful destruction and end to ISIS, the U.S., again the U.S. establish a coherent regional Middle East strategic strategy, coupled with the necessary regional military strategy for dealing with ISIS across the Middle East, operationally, it must end up providing stabilization forces for post-Raqqa era — mainly because there would be no other option for securing largely Sunni Arab eastern Syria and preventing it from again falling into extremists’ hands. It’s a real possibility that we could have an American mandate over eastern Syria — “not because the U.S. wants it, but because there would be no other foreign actor with the ability to hold and stabilize that territory. That consideration must be built into the equation.
In a post ISIS environment we must also consider that Syria’s Assad regime doesn’t have the forces to hold parts of the country – remembering it hasn’t controlled in years. And almost certainly, the Sunni Arab population of northern and northeast Syria will not easily accept either Syrian government forces, or Kurdish forces even if they were up to the task.
U.S. strategy for the post-Raqqa period may become clearer at a major conference the U.S. State Department will host this coming of some 60- members – nations and international organizations – of the counter-ISIS coalition. In late February the Pentagon delivered plans to the White House for defeating IS/ISIS within a year — details of the plan of course are classified and have not been forthcoming.
While the upcoming conference is not expected to serve as the rollout of a new counter-IS strategy, but the Trump administration is using the event more as a warning notification and a stern signal — highlighting recent gains against ISIS, including in the Iraq Mosul campaign, and signaling to some degree where the U.S. intends to go next and what the future holds for once again expanded U.S. involvement.