Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post reveal that President Obama’s senior national security advisers have recommended positioning US special operations forces closer to the enemy lines of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Iraq and even in Syria.

Apparently it is felt that Iraqi troops would benefit from having stronger nearby, in-field tactical support from US Navy Seals, Green Berets and other special operations units. Likewise, their presence and guidance might help the “Democratic Forces of Syria” in their fight attempt to take Raqqa, the capital of Daesh. (The lead element in the Democratic Forces of Syria is the Kurdish Self Protection Units or YPG).

These advisers clearly feel that US allies on the ground against Daesh lack the tactical skills to make real progress against the brutal terrorist organization on their own.

Washington is also getting a great deal of pressure from Iraqis. Anti-Daesh Sunnis in al-Anbar Province are said to be astonished that the US and Baghdad, after the fall Tikrit and some successes in villages outside Ramadi, have just allowed Daesh to regroup and reimpose itself on the local population.

Obviously, moving US troops closer to the front in this way and having them in the field risks casualties.

And, putting US troops on the ground in northeastern Syria is illegal in international law. There is no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of deadly force in Syria, and the Syrian government isn’t asking for US troops (though the Syrian foreign minister has verbally given his blessing to US bombing of Daesh, so maybe he would not actually mind US special operations forces if they were deployed to overthrow Daesh in Raqqa.)

The big danger here is escalation. The special operations forces are being moved to the front out of frustration that American allies on the ground seem unable to make substantial progress against Daesh, which is increasingly ensconced among some 3 or 4 million people (the press estimates of 9 million living under Daesh don’t take account all the people who have fled their rule).

But what if this doesn’t work, either? Won’t the number of special operations troops have to be increased? And maybe in the end you need US infantry? And then, boom, you have a big American army in Iraq and Syria again.

It is even worse, because the mostly likely outcome is that the US will help Shiites take the Sunni city of Mosul and will help Kurds take the Arab city of Raqqa. Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims will never forgive the US if that scenario plays out, and will have a strong motive to attack the US and its troops. Daesh waged a guerrilla war against US presence in Iraq 2004-2011, and it can just go back into that mode.

WaPo suggests that this move is partly about Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s legacy, more likely to be secured with bold action. Yes, that is what Robert S. McNamara thought, too.


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