American special forces are burning out. In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last week, their commander, General Raymond “Ray” Thomas called the pace of deployments simply “unsustainable”.
His 8,000 fighters have now been engaged in “continuous combat over the past 15 and a half years.” This is predictably resulting in increased suicides, family problems and general fatigue.
Thomas’ warning is not new; General Joseph Votel, a predecessor, argued that the increasing reliance of senior military commanders on special forces rather than conventional troops was over-demanding. “We can’t do everything,” as he put it. This is also not a uniquely American problem. British special forces units engaged in high-tempo operations in Iraq where they were expected to raid and arrest Al-Qaeda suspects every night for weeks on end.
The full array of American special forces gathered under Joint Special Operations Command, or “JSOC”, was less than 2,000 before 9/11. That figure is now over 25,000. It is a remarkable shift in military policy – to expand special forces at such a rate and to such a degree. In scale, they have begun to take on the air of a Middle Eastern-style Republican Guard, minus the political trappings.
Politicians too are reliant on special forces who are allergic to foreign interventions since the wholly disastrous Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq in 2003. American political leaders are very fond of the term “no boots on the ground”. This somehow excludes special forces though.
American politicians so often deny there are “boots on the ground” in Syria, amongst other places. Former President Barack Obama said there would be “no boots on the ground” no less than 16 times, before sending 50 special forces troops there in August 2013. Today, the total deployment is ten times that. Obama denied to the end that these counted as “boots on the ground”, and the American media largely went along with this lie.
The more the special forces generals plea for more help, the more conventional troops will have to step in. This is already starting to happen. United States Marines have been sent to Raqqa in their hundreds, armed with howitzers and ready to support local allies.
This is mission creep on a significant scale. First it was Delta Force and the Navy Seals, then it was the Rangers, and now it is the Marines. It is not improbable that mainstream US army units – perhaps more artillery specialists or infantry battalions, will soon follow. Today, these troops are faced towards Raqqa, but with Donald Trump’s volte face on his previous adoration for Bashar Al-Assad, the drums of regime change may be rolling. Al-Assad may be their next target. Taking out terrorists can be done with special forces – but conventional troops will definitely be needed to take on an entire Russian and Iranian-backed country.
Look closely, and the media war is beginning. Two weeks ago, an anonymous Western intelligence agency briefed the BBC that Al-Assad is developing chemical weapons. This was then published.
They declined to be named, and the BBC thought it unwise to name them. This is an understandable editorial decision, but the situation does seem reminiscent of the falsified evidence about “weapons of mass destruction” which led to the invasion of Iraq. Whether this was an American agency remains unclear. It is a remarkable admission to make nonetheless. Since 2013, the international community has bragged about their ridding of Al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Now he is in possession of these munitions after all. Is this another 45 minute dossier claim? We shall see.
It would be quite extraordinary for the American-led West to finally take out Al-Assad – but Trump is clearly an extraordinary president.
He has dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan for no reason other than to scare the living daylights out of Kim Jong-Un, who he also may start a war with when it suits. On Syria, he promised not to get involved and then bombed a regime airbase, a regime who he had previously explicitly expressed support for. Those other countries who really want to rid the Syrians of Al-Assad are rushing to exploit this erratic White House – including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
If regime change is really coming in Syria – the exhaustion of American special forces may be a useful pretext for embarking on this long and bloody process. There was only ever so much that the special forces apparatus, however rapidly it had been expanded, could take.
The lesser irony is that use of special forces was designed as an illusory form of de-escalation – a way for politicians to say they weren’t intervening abroad while doing so on the sly. Now the exhaustion of those same troops will be used to justify even more intervention and re-escalation. The greater irony is that it is a president who was elected on an anti-intervention ticket who will do it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.