The Islamic State's Greatest Wish: U.S. Combat Forces in Syria
“The Defense Department might propose that the US send conventional ground combat forces into northern Syria for the first time to speed up the fight against ISIS,” CNN reported last week. No options have been formally presented to the National Security Council or President Trump for consideration, and there will certainly be more choices on the menu for the NSC staff to consider. But if the deployment of potentially sending several thousand U.S. conventional forces into Syria is truly an option that the Trump administration is considering, then it should think long and hard before signing the order.
The question is not whether to defeat the Islamic State in Raqqa, but how to do it. As the bedrock of the counter-ISIS campaign and the country that has sent most of the advisers on the ground and conducted most of the air strikes on ISIS targets (68 percent of the air strikes in Iraq and 95 percent in Syria have been dropped by U.S. aircraft), how Washington, DC decides to push ISIS out of Raqqa will be determinative of the coalition’s entire strategy in Syria.
This is why the United States needs to get it right. Speeding up the liberation of Raqqa by placing U.S. troops on the ground, bringing them closer to the frontlines, and perhaps doing some of the combat alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces, is not only unnecessary for the success of the operation, but a gift to ISIS propagandists who are struggling to keep the group’s morale from plummeting.
The offensive operation in Raqqa is likely to be a slow and grinding affair. ISIS has had years to buttress the city’s defenses, clampdown on collaborators who are feeding targeting information to U.S. pilots constantly flying above the city and debate about how best to make any liberation attempt by anti-ISIS local forces as difficult as possible. Although Syria and Iraq are indeed different terrain with different ethnic characteristics and different players involved, ISIS’s defense of Mosul against an estimated one hundred thousand pro-government forces demonstrates how hard the group is willing to fight to exact casualties on its enemies. It has been three months since the second phase of the battle for Mosul began, and Iraqi security forces are just now cleaning up the remnants of ISIS cells in the eastern half of the city—dirty and grueling work on top of the block-by-block, street-by-street fighting that Iraqi counterterrorism units have already performed to get where they are today. Hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan are overworked, Iraqi army casualties are likely in the thousands, and entire sections of Mosul—a once proud cosmopolitan city—have been destroyed by ISIS suicide attacks and car bombings. The Islamic State, knowing full well that it doesn’t possess the strength, numbers and prowess to hold off Iraqi units for long, has instead chosen a strategy that makes any liberation of ISIS territory as painful and physically tolling as possible.
The battle in Syria could be even tougher, not because ISIS militants in the country are better fighters than their counterparts in Iraq, but rather due to the reality that the U.S.-led coalition doesn’t have a central government it is willing to partner with. In Iraq, the United States has Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi and one of the best counterterrorism and special forces units in the region. In Syria, America’s unwillingness to work with the Syrian army and Iranian-organized militias means that an assortment of local ethnic militias is the next best thing. Without ISIS as a common enemy, the Arab and Kurdish factions that have been synchronizing their operations ever closer to Raqqa would be on far shakier foundations. Ordering additional U.S. forces in the middle of this ethnic mosaic, while it would accelerate the operation, could just as quickly fray the bonds that have kept Kurdish and Arab fighters together.
The sooner ISIS is defeated in Raqqa, the sooner Syria’s Arabs and Kurds will be forced to grapple with the inevitable dispute about who will administer the city and keep the peace, which territories in the north will be ruled by the YPG and how ethnic minorities residing in a post-ISIS Raqqa will be protected. Ironically, holding off on a more aggressive U.S. presence in the fight for Raqqa will give factions within the SDF a little more time to discover that a post-ISIS federal structure that to date has been highly elusive.