American Special Forces in Syria

Dana Ettinger, JHU:

President Obama is taking a page out of the Republicans’ playbook: he’s sending troops to Syria to combat the Islamic State (ISIS). The conflict in Syria is, broadly speaking, three-sided: Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, those rebelling against the Assad regime (including the Kurdish separatists), and ISIS. Ostensibly, both Assad and the rebels are fighting ISIS, as well as each other. Around 50 American Special Forces operatives will be sent into the war-torn country to aid the Kurdish rebels. This is neither good politics nor good policy.

Sending ground troops overseas is a bad idea. Obama once pledged to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only have those withdrawals been delayed – as recently as a few weeks ago the President announced a further delay in withdrawing from Afghanistan – but he also sent more troops to Iraq. An end to the wars of the 2000s was one of the most popular components of President Obama’s election campaigns. By reversing those decisions, he is betraying the Americans who voted for an end to the wars. Much of President Bush’s legacy is the ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. As Obama’s presidency comes to a close, he is likely very concerned with his own legacy; he should be wary of letting the beginning of another long war define it.

Additionally, presidential election campaigns are in full swing. With the notable exception of Senator Rand Paul, all of the Republican candidates have declared support for sending ground troops into Syria. However, rather than backing President Obama’s initiative, they have criticized the decision for being too limited. The Democrats, on the other hand, are split – Hillary Clinton agrees with the President, while Bernie Sanders is less hawkish and objects. Democrats in Congress tend to side with Sanders, leaving President Obama very isolated politically. This strong point of contention will deepen the divide in the Democratic Party, a dangerous prospect when facing the Republican campaign juggernaut. If the Democrats want to win, they must present a more cohesive vision than the fractured Republicans.

Moreover, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan should serve as a warning for what could easily happen in Syria. True, 50 Special Forces operatives is a small contingent. However, there are already hundreds of American military advisors on the ground. Eventually, they will all need further support. As history demonstrated with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, military involvement in conflicts of this type only snowballs, eventually getting so cumbersome that over a decade later the United States is still de facto occupying foreign nations.

On the international stage, the increased involvement from the United States will garner mixed reactions. The European Union at large will probably be supportive; the United Kingdom in particular has seen a surprisingly high rate of citizens defecting to join ISIS. Reactions from the Middle East will be less enthusiastic. There is a sectarian aspect to the conflict – Sunnis and Shias – that complicates matters. Many analysts fear a proxy war could erupt as a way to solve the longstanding religious conflict. Turkey’s caginess with regard to the Syrian Kurds will make it wary of the United States’ actions. However, Turkey joins the Gulf States in supporting the Sunni opposition, their suspicion of the Kurds notwithstanding. In the hypothetical proxy war, Shia Iraq would side with those factions. Iran, also run by Shias, supports the Alawite (Shia) Assad regime. The already-fraught relationship between the United States and Iran will be sorely tested by this new policy.

The effect on diplomacy with Russia will be equally complicated. President Putin backs President Assad and has been sending the regime money and materiel for several years now. In early October, Russia’s support for the Syrian government culminated in the deployment of ground troops to bolster Assad’s forces. Any American forces fighting with the Kurds against Assad’s army will therefore be fighting the Russian army by default. At a time when tension between the United States and Russia is reaching levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, this new proxy war will only escalate things further. Aaron David Miller, a vice president with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars went so far as to applaud this as a way to “enhance [the US’s] profile after Moscow has raised theirs.”

President Obama likely feels backed into a corner: several factions clamoring for more aggressive military action against ISIS must be balanced against his own party, which generally tries to avoid entangling the military in indefinite conflict. However, he must stand strong. Reversing his decision will have immediate political consequences, but in the long term it is the only legitimate course of action. Beyond giving his Republican opposition more ammunition in the presidential election, putting American boots on the ground is unwise. It will inevitably lead to another entanglement à la Bush 43. And just as the American invasion of Iraq alienated several allies, so too will this decision negatively affect diplomatic relations. The relationships with Russia, Iran and Iraq are already frayed – it won’t take too much pressure for them to snap entirely, with untold repercussions.

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