April 25, 2016

President Obama orders 250 more American troops to Syria - what's the plan?

President Obama has ordered the phased deployment of an additional 250 U.S. troops to Syria to intensify the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is expected that most of these troops will be special forces, primarily U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers.

The Army soldiers will be used to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against ISIS with training, intelligence, logistics, medical help, etc. This is a core mission of the Green Berets - forming coherent fighting units among the local population. Rather than having to introduce large numbers of American troops into an area, the concept is that the locals will do the bulk of the fighting, with American guidance and assistance.

The Air Force combat controllers will serve as what used to be called forward air controllers, now called tactical air control parties (TACP). This puts American eyes on the ground in direct contact with coalition aircraft - primarily U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber aircraft - flying overhead.

These "battlefield airmen" have the capability to designate targets on the ground via laser or GPS coordinates, and to feed targeting data directly into the guidance systems on weapons carried on board the aircraft. It is a proven tactic we have perfected over the years, devastating and accurate - no one does this better than us.

The recent deployment of the venerable B-52 to the Middle East - flying sorties from an air base in Qatar - fits into this operation. The B-52 has been transformed from a wide area saturation bomber (sometime inaccurately described as "carpet bombing") to a precision guided munitions carrier, capable of releasing one GPS-guided weapon at a time from its huge bomb bay. (See my article on this, B-52 deployment to the Middle East - let's drop the term "carpet bombing")

Let's address the "elephant in the room." The President's order expands the U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria - continued deployment of advisers reminds those of us who served in Vietnam how we got there. The words used in the description of the additional troops - "non-combat troops" deployed in phases - are troubling.

First, to label these troops headed for Syria as non-combat is not only ludicrous, but insults the courage and commitment of the men being sent into harm's way. They will be on the ground fighting arguably the most ruthless enemy we have faced in half a century.

As for phasing troops incrementally into the fight, that too smacks of Vietnam. Last month, after a U.S. Marine was killed in Iraq, I wrote:

So, we have the incremental expansion of the size and scope of our military presence in Iraq. I fear we are sliding down a slippery slope with no clear mission or plan. If ISIS is indeed a threat to American national security, then let's address it. Stop the half-hearted measures and make the tough decisions. Forget the "boots on the ground" myth - that die is cast, that lie is past.

Make up your mind, Mr. President - are we in this fight or not? If we are, go big. If we are not, go home.
Read the entire article, More U.S. ground troops to Iraq - further down that slippery slope?

There is a plan, but I am not sure our political leadership is fully committed to its implementation. Over the last few years - since ISIS demonstrated that it is a threat rather than an aberration - the Obama Administration has gradually realized that the threat must be addressed.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are wont to decree that "there is no military solution" to the situation in Iraq and Syria, yet they keep sending more troops into the region. While the ultimate solution to the problems may not be strictly military, it will be military action that leads the parties to that illusive political solution. Diplomacy only works when there is military force backing it up.

The new leadership at the Department of Defense - Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps General Joe Dunsford - seem to have gotten the ear of the President.

The plan must be - it's just common military sense - to isolate the two cities that represent the centers of gravity for ISIS: al-Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Separate them and take them down, either simultaneously or sequentially. It is apparent that the current thrust of U.S.-led coalition operations is to cut the lines of communication between Mosul and al-Raqqah. The recapture of Sinjar, Iraq and the capture of al-Shadadi in Syria are part of that strategy.

The major problem remains - there is little to no coordination between efforts in Iraq and Syria. The situations are very different and very complicated. Iraq almost makes sense; Syria defies rationality.

The President's decision to deploy another 250 troops to Syria is a good thing, and hopefully enough to start taking back ground from ISIS. That said, it will be a long difficult fight. ISIS will not easily surrender the ground they have taken in either Syria or Iraq - there will be no diplomatic solution to the situation on the ground. As in most of these situations, the ground will be retaken by force of arms.

I hope that realization has taken hold at the White House and the National Security Council. If ISIS to be defeated - I believe the President's words were "degrade and ultimately defeat" - it will require force of arms beyond what has been committed thus far. I have no problem committing the force required to defeat ISIS - we have the requisite military power; all we lack is the political will to do so.

Again, Mr. President - are we here to win, to defeat ISIS? If so, call Ash Carter and order him to get it done. You will say it's not that simple, that I don't understand. Actually, it is that simple, and I do understand.

Go big, or go home.