At the end of October, US President Barack Obama authorised the Pentagon to send special-operation forces to Syria to “train, advise and assist” rebel forces on the ground in the fight against the extremist group; Daesh.
This month, the Pentagon will deploy up to 50 US special-operation troops to battlefields in Syria with the aim of creating advanced American military participation in the war against Daesh. The deployment could indicate a policy shift in the strategy towards the war-torn country. Obama’s authorisation marks an unusual escalation in the form of direct US involvement on the ground in Syria.
Throughout his presidency, Obama promised to avoid entering a ground mission in the Middle East, and up until now, he has maintained that promise in regards to US intervention in Syria. The American troops will be stationed in the territory controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in north-eastern Syria. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said that the strategy is “to enable local forces”, adding that he is open to deploying more troops, as needed. A White House spokesperson declined to give further details about the mission’s exact role.
The US is currently engaged in diplomatic talks in Vienna, Austria, with several international powers, including Russia and Iran, on the topic of the conflict in Syria. The discussion continues to focus on the fate of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, who remains a major obstacle for progress towards a solution.
Beginning in September, Russia has directly intervened in the war in Syria, deploying thousands of fighters and carrying out airstrikes, which have overwhelmingly targeted US-backed anti-Assad rebels. Russia, however, has claimed its target is Daesh.
Russia’s increased involvement has pushed the Obama administration to consider expanding its intervention in Syria. Obama’s plans for deployment, however, will not be enough to balance the scale of powers on the ground. Russia has further forced the US to acknowledge and accept its role in the Syrian conflict by establishing a formal military agreement to avoid air clashes between the two countries’ forces in Syrian airspace.
The US military involvement in Syria does not compare to Russia’s massive deployment, and it is very unlikely America will be willing to counter Russia in terms of the size of its military presence.
With the deployment, the US intends to promote its fight against Daesh, maintain Kurdish loyalty and support, and preserve leverage and leadership in the international war against terrorism.
Last month, the Kurdish YPG forces welcomed Russian airstrikes and requested weapons from Russia in order to collaborate in the fight against Daesh, amid Al-Assad’s attempts to re-establish relations with the Kurds.
Kurdish YGP forces have proved to be the most formidable enemy to Daesh, and the US has invested heavily in them.
It is likely that the Americans view the emergence of Kurdish-Russian relations as a threat to their interests in the strategic area that borders both Turkey and Iraq.
In terms of the fight against Daesh, the impact of the limited US special forces deployment would not exceed small local advances on the ground, nor alter the situation in the north-east of the country.
In the past week, Obama received criticism for his decision. Republican Senator John McCain, who has called for a more interventionist policy in the Middle East, said that Obama’s decision to send forces to Syria is not sufficient to destroy Daesh and that he “continues to have no realistic strategy”.
Obama’s former Syria special advisor, Frederic Hof,called the move a “Band-Aid of sorts” adding that it will not significantly change the situation.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration has failed to establish and sustain reliable allies and partners on the ground, which resulted in the fragmentation of opposition forces and, in many cases, rebel defection to hardline groups.
The ambiguity of the deployment supports the prevalent argument that the Obama administration has no consistent or coherent strategy for Syria. The timing of the move, however, may afford Obama a partial reprieve from critics of his strategy towards Syria, during his final year in office.
The US has observed, without taking assertive action, the rise of Daesh and the unstoppable expansion of Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces and influence. After four and a half years of the conflict, the Obama administration’s policy has grown accustomed to compromise. Washington has adopted a reactionary strategy to events in the conflict, rather than a strategy based on influence.
Abdulrahman Al-Masri is a Syrian journalist who covers news and politics in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. He can be followed on Twitter @AbdulrhmanMasri.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.