On October 30, the Obama administration announced that the President had authorized “no more” than 50 special operations forces to be deployed to northern Syria in a “non-combat” role. The troops would help to coordinate the efforts of local forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, such as the main Syrian Kurdish militia group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and various Arab and Syriac Christian militias. The decision was notable for marking the first official deployment of US ground forces to Syria. The US already has over 3,500 American troops in Iraq, the first of whom was killed recently in a commando raid to rescue hostages.
Predictably, Republicans argued that the deployment of a small contingent of special forces was too little to affect the situation. In the words of Congressman Mac Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, “I’m concerned that the administration is trying to put in place limited measures — too late — that are not going to make a difference … I don’t see a strategy towards accomplishing a goal, I see an effort to run out the clock without disaster.”
But Democrats were also worried. Some, like Senator Diane Feinstein, the senior Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shared the view that the administration’s approach is insufficient and that a larger special forces presence is required in Syria. “I’m concerned that we don’t have the time and we don’t have years. We need to be aggressive now because ISIL is a quasi-state. ISIL has 30,000 fighters, it’s got a civil infrastructure, it’s got funding, it’s spreading in other countries, and it’s a big, big problem,” Feinstein said. “There may be some land held by ISIL in Iraq and Syria that’s been taken back. But for all of that, there’s much more they have gained in other countries.”
Other Democrats feared the United States was sliding into a war it couldn’t hope to win, and they were not persuaded by administration assurances no mission creep was involved. The mission hadn’t changed insisted White House press secretary Josh Earnest. The new forces’ responsibility would not be “to lead the charge to take a hill, but rather to offer advice and assistance to those local forces about the best way they can organize their efforts to take the fight to ISIL or to take the hill inside of Syria”.
This past Sunday, a month after the administration announced it was sending a small detachment to Syria, it acknowledged the troops hadn’t yet arrived. Nor would the administration disclose the date “due to the sensitive nature of the US deployment” though it would be “very soon”. According to the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, Brett McGurk, who also holds the title of “Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”, coalition forces had not been slow in going after the Islamic State. “We’ve had to do some things over the last year to set the conditions for us to accelerate our efforts,” he said.
US strategy, according to McGurk, is to strangle the Islamic State by blocking its corridor into Turkey and holding the coalition’s “northern flank” above the Tigris River, cutting ISIL’s main supply route between its de facto capital in Raqqa in Syria and its stronghold in Mosul in Iraq, and working with Iraqi security forces to retake Ramadi in the central province of Anbar. The current focus, McGurk says, is on isolating Raqqa “where we think a lot of (ISIL’s) plots are being hatched”.
Meanwhile, the French and more recently the Russians have been bombing the hell out of Raqqa — and last week there were several reports ISIL leaders were abandoning the place. Where they would go isn’t clear because the Kurdish Peshmerga have recaptured Sinjar and cut the road to Mosul.