Last Friday, the Obama Administration announced that it was officially sending 30-50 special forces troops to be stationed in Syria. This announcement was made in the aftermath of the “non-combat” death of a special forces soldier in Iraq, which we discussed last week. Indeed, it seems like the timing of this announcement was based partially on this previous incident. The Obama Administration was already receiving bad press for misleading the public about the “train and assist” mission in Iraq, so they seem to have decided to get all the bad news out at once. Yes, we’re going on combat raids in Iraq–and oh by the way, we’re going to do that in Syria now too.
Although sending ground troops to yet another country in the Middle East may sound dramatic, we should be careful not to overstate the significance of this announcement in terms of actual policy. The special forces are a little bit like the CIA. They’re doing things all the time, but the activity isn’t usually declared openly unless it falls into one of two categories: It goes well and can be used to score political points (the Osama raid, for instance); or it goes very poorly (someone dies, mission fails, international incident, etc. ) and the Administration knows the truth will come out eventually–that appears to be what we saw last week. You can only have so many deaths among someone in “non-combat” roles before someone starts asking questions.
Anyway, the fact is that we know US special forces have already carried at least one raid in Syria (we learned about it because it went well), and presumably, there have been others as well. So in terms of actual policy, Obama’s declaration would appear to mean little in the short-term. Maybe the US troops are going to leave for their missions from a base in Syria instead of Iraq, but otherwise this is probably just going to be a little more of what we’ve already been doing.
Having said that, the very act of declaring this publicly has major implications for the conflict. First, since our soldiers will be working primarily with the Syrian Kurds, which Turkey considers Terrorists, this puts us at greater risk for more conflict with our NATO ally. Additionally, openly putting troops in Syria, which the Syrian government did not request, is an overtly aggressive act in violation of international law. This will produce higher tensions with Syria and Russia, and of course, it also gives the finger to the UN. What would happen if Turkey’s next bombing run against the Kurds in Iraq or Syria happens to hit US soldiers that were with them? What would happen if a Russian airstrike on ISIS hits US soldiers in the middle of an operation? It’s tough to say, but this is a greater risk now that everyone has been put on notice that US troops are going to be in the area. And of course, we probably aren’t coordinating informing Russia or Turkey about these operations, making the chance for an accident all the more likely.
But finally, the most important implication of this public announcement is that Obama has once again broken his commitments on foreign policy. It may also be the first step in a greater escalation. Sure, there’s 50 troops in Syria today, but we should expect him to send more in the future. And all of this is without any approval from Congress. The one silver lining here is that this latest move may finally force the Congress to debate and vote on this war–and possibly give the American people a chance to say no.
For more on this last subject, I would recommend this great piece by Trevor Timm at The Guardian on Obama’s broken foreign policy promises and how the Congress has refused to hold him accountable.