As the U.S.-led SDF forces advance towards Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State, former ambassador Frederic C. Hof explains the three options for accelerating the fight against ISIS by deploying U.S. ground troops to Syria.
By Frederic C. Hof
SINCE 2014, THERE have been two loosely connected wars destroying the Syrian state and creating humanitarian and geopolitical disasters: the battle in western Syria between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad (aided by Iran and Russia) and a diverse collection of armed opposition groups; and the battle to the east between the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and a coalition of forces led by the U.S.
Occasionally these two wars intersect, usually when ISIS sees something of value (like a site filled with archeological treasures) to be taken from Assad. Normally, however, Assad and ISIS have coexisted: Each sees the other as the perfect enemy for public relations and recruiting purposes. The Trump administration is thinking about breaking up this symbiotic relationship. Indeed, it may accelerate the defeat of ISIS in Syria by deploying U.S.ground combat units.
Ever since the autumn of 2014, when ISIS forces tried to overrun the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border, U.S.-led coalition air forces have relied mainly on Syrian Kurds for ground combat power. These Kurdish fighters belong to a group called the People’s Protection Units, an organization linked to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party: an enemy of the Turkish government. The Syrian Kurds have been advised by U.S. Army special operations personnel, and this has been a source of dispute between Ankara and Washington. The latter has sought to assuage Turkish concerns by diluting the Kurdish force with Arab militiamen, creating an anti-ISIS armed group called “Syrian Democratic Forces.”
The immediate military objective of the U.S.-led air forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces is to take ISIS’s Syrian “capital” of Raqqa, a city still believed to contain over 200,000 civilians. Predominantly Kurdish forces have largely isolated the Sunni Arab city. Although the U.S.Department of Defense believes that some ISIS officials are seeking to escape, the city itself may still contain several thousand fighters along with leadership elements. It should be noted that Raqqa is the place where ISISatrocities in Paris and Brussels were planned.
One option for taking the “capital” is to insert Arab components of the Syrian Democratic Forces into Arab Raqqa in an attempt to neutralize whatever ISIS fighters remain. This course of action would be risky both to the attackers and to civilians. Urban warfare is both challenging and complex: Untrained militiamen moving through a booby-trapped city where defenders will use civilians as hostages and shields may find it hard to make progress and to minimize casualties, both to themselves and to the civilians they seek to liberate. Although U.S. aircraft will hit targets precisely and avoid the kind of mass terror recently inflicted deliberately on defenseless civilians by Russia and the Assad regime in Aleppo, untrained militiamen may not exercise proper fire discipline and may not be able to communicate enemy positions precisely to coalition air support elements. Using ground combat forces not fully trained in urban combat operations could produce costly unintended consequences, even if they are accompanied by skilled advisers.
Another option would be for Raqqa to be taken by Turkish forces, perhaps in the company of U.S. advisers. Turkey is a NATO partner, and its military has skilled and highly motivated soldiers. Taking Raqqa with a combination of Turkish soldiers, American advisers, and U.S.-led air assets would be a major improvement over reliance on militiamen.
A third option – one reportedly under Pentagon consideration – would be to use U.S. ground force combat units (not just special forces), operating in close coordination with U.S. air power, either to take Raqqa from ISISdirectly or to support the Syrian Democratic Forces or Turkish Army in the assault. The advantages brought to bear by American combat units are three: unrivaled expertise in urban operations, unparalleled lethality in nighttime operations, and deep experience in integrated air-ground operations.
ISIS fighters would not fare well in ground operations featuring a high U.S.content. Previous U.S. ground interventions in Syria against terrorists have been markedly one-sided. Raqqa would be no exception.
Yet killing ISIS in Raqqa and the balance of eastern Syria may not be as challenging as keeping it dead. Turning liberated areas over to the so-called Syrian government – a family-dominated mafia operation – would only set the stage for the resurrection of violent extremism. Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 teach a valuable lesson: Plan carefully for post-combat governance. Replacing the ISIS with non-Assad local administrations – perhaps linked together in an alternate Syrian government – is essential for stabilizing liberated areas.
Direct U.S. military intervention will not be cost-free: there will be casualties, complications, and monetary costs. But military professionalism has its benefits as well, particularly where civilians are concerned. Killing ISIS will not be a picnic. But keeping it dead will be the heavy lift.
After publication, the Pentagon announced a request to send in an additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers and marines into Syria, effectively doubling the number of troops on the ground. This increase request is part of a report on combatting ISIS submitted last month by the Pentagon to the Trump administration.