A Special Forces Operation Detachment-Alpha soldier on patrol. Image: US Army.
This week the US Department of Defense announced that it would send an additional 250 troops to Syria to serve in non-combat support roles. These come in addition to the approximately 50 Special Forces soldiers operating in Northern Syria in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While still small, this new deployment marks the beginning of a move away from the ‘no boots on the ground’ policy of the Obama administration towards Syria.
While not explicitly stated, it is almost certain that these 250 troops being sent to the war-town country will be serving in support of the SDF. The reason for this is that this group is the US’s only successful partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS, and the only one far enough removed from the rebel/regime conflict in order to not cause diplomatic problems with Russia and Iran.
Furthermore, the US has recently constructed an airbase located in Rimelan in SDF-held northeast Syria, and local media there has already begun reporting the arrival of these US troops.
The primary question however is not who they will support, but rather in what manner. Significantly, it remains to be seen exactly how loosely the US defines the ‘support role’ provided by the troops.
While this is mostly talked about from the perspective of training local forces and calling in airstrikes from behind the front lines, this is not always the case. Experience over the last year in Iraq has shown that US troops do occasionally involve themselves in direct fighting with ISIS, and have suffered casualties from this. Moreover, footage has emerged in recent days of western Special Forces engaged in fighting on the front lines with the SDF during their offensive on Al-Shaddadi earlier this year.
With this in mind, it would appear that the US troops announced will play a mixed role; providing training and airstrike targeting support combined with at least some combat teams spearheading key advances. All of this will come in use as the SDF plans to conduct new offensives deep into ISIS-held territory, and into areas which are predominately ethnically Arab. There, support from the local population and tribes will be critical, and US assistance will help fold more non-Kurdish fighters into the SDF, garnering it greater international (and intra-Syrian) legitimacy
Taking a wider view, the US decision to become more deeply involved in Syria comes alongside moves which suggest the country has decided on the SDF as its favored partner in the country, and the best bet to defeat ISIS. While Russia has raised some concerns with the deployment, it does not interfere significantly with its own objectives for now, and the country is in itself supporting a separate SDF pocket further west. Notwithstanding major changes in the situation on the ground, the deployment of small numbers of US soldiers to the region could become a more regular occurrence as the final push towards ISIS’s capital Ar-Raqqa picks up.