Syria May Be a No-Win Situation for U.S. Troops
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the Pentagon is recommending up to one thousand additional U.S. troops be sent to join the fight in Raqqa to help defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). Before one more American boot is sent to fight on the ground in Syria, however, the administration owes it to the American people to make the case on how it is in America’s interest. If the administration can’t do that, then the proposed deployment must be annulled.
It’s more likely that the administration won’t even attempt to build support among the people and will instead merely give the order to deploy the forces. That is unfortunate, because a careful analysis of the situation quickly shows that there is enormous risk for U.S. personnel and interests and almost no potential for lasting benefits. We should not ask American men and women to die in the conduct of a mission that is effectively unrelated to the security of our country. I’ve seen such wasted sacrifice before and it is painful and tragic to behold.
In 2011, I was stationed in the eastern part of Afghanistan and spent considerable time observing combat operations in various parts of the country. I am still prohibited from discussing classified material so I cannot reveal specific details, but during my deployment I became aware of a certain mission that resulted in a number of American soldiers being killed and wounded. The battle was portrayed in public as a regrettable sacrifice, but one that was very important to the war effort. It was nothing of the sort.
The battle was in an area the military leadership knew that neither the United States nor Afghan forces could hold, and that was a hive of Taliban activity. Further, about nine months prior to the attack, the United States had fought a similar battle in the same location, suffered killed and wounded in action, and Afghan forces failed to hold the territory after the battle. The Taliban had reconquered the area within weeks of America’s withdrawal. Since the United States didn’t even achieve tactical results from the first mission, a second should never have been ordered. Nevertheless, it was.
The second time, however, the U.S. plan didn’t attempt to leave Afghan troops in charge of the area. After the battle in 2011, in which the United States killed substantial Taliban fighters, the United States and ANA simply left. Again, predictably, within a few months after the battle, the Taliban had replaced all their losses and reestablished full control of the area. Six months later, the United States began withdrawing from that region.
It was as if no fights had ever occurred. The Taliban controlled the area after the second battle just as it had controlled the area before and after the first battle—but a disturbing number of American men had been killed in the two fights and many others wounded. Though the tactical fight on the day of the battle had been a total success for the U.S. side, the sacrifice of all those American lives had been in vain. This fight in Raqqa will certainly end the same way.
The battle for Mosul in Iraq includes a total of one hundred thousand troops allied with Baghdad, with complete control of the countryside surrounding the city and the unchallenged control of the skies by the U.S. Air Force. In the fight for Raqqa in Syria, however, there is no state-sponsored military force. Instead, there are a number of rebel groups and other militias that operate in Syrian territory where the regime and Iranian troops fight against them on the ground, Russian and Syrian air forces strike them from the air, and opposition groups snipe them often from within. The presence of an additional one thousand U.S. troops will do nothing to change the strategic situation, and might not even provide a temporary tactical victory.
Already there are U.S. ground troops in Manbij trying to keep Turkish and U.S.-sponsored militia from killing each other, hundreds of U.S. Marines firing artillery near Raqqa and special operations troops training various forces throughout the area. Russian and Syrian fighter jets accidentally attacked U.S.-backed groups earlier this month in Syria, almost hitting U.S. troops.
Turkey has issued veiled threats against the United States in response to recent military deployments there, and just days ago Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad flatly said U.S. forces operating in “Syria without our invitation or consultation or permission, they are invaders.” Putting U.S. troops into such a chaotic and uncertain environment carries great risk of mission failure and will very likely cost the lives of American service personnel. Even if the U.S. troops somehow helped the various militia groups involved win control of Raqqa from ISIS, there would immediately be pressure from Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey on the victors. It is as close to a no-win situation for U.S. troops as can be imagined.
Congress has the constitutional responsibility to either support the president by passing an appropriate Authorization for the Use of Military Force or, if the American people don’t agree it is in their interest, to withhold funding. Before ordering any military action, the administration owes it to the men and women wearing the uniform—who will be asked to risk their lives—to make the case to the American people that the mission is worth the risk to the nation. If the people do not agree, then the president must abandon the idea.
It’s understandable the president wants to accelerate the fight against ISIS to meet his campaign promise. But rushing to failure does not advance American interests. The current conditions on the ground militarily and in the region politically make the insertion of even a few thousand U.S. troops an unwise proposition that has little chance of succeeding tactically and will almost certainly fail strategically. We must stop needlessly sacrificing American lives in Syria.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
Image: U.S. Army bugler at Arlington National Cemetery. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy