Reuters, citing two Obama Administration officials, reports that U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria may occur in the near future.
The news agency cites two anonymous Administration officials saying further special ops missions “would be narrowly tailored, seeking to advance specific, limited military objectives in both Iraq and Syria.”
Syrian operations are envisioned as “advising moderate Syrian opposition fighters for the first time,” and possibly helping to “call in U.S. air strikes.” Also, the officials said Apache attack helicopters with American crews may be deployed in support of Iraqi units as they fight increasingly heavy engagements against Islamic State forces.
The rapidly shifting position of the U.S. government on the subject of putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq began with claims by the Obama Administration that a fallen special operator, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, was not killed during a “combat deployment.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter drew some angry responses when he fumbled last Friday to explain how Master Sgt. Wheeler’s death in battle against ISIS did not mean American ground forces were entering combat operations against ISIS. Carter argued that Wheeler and other American special operators were assigned to an “advise-and-assist” role in the raid on an ISIS dungeon in Iraq, while Kurdish and Iraqi forces were supposed to handle the fighting. When they got into trouble, U.S. commanders on the scene decided it was necessary to stop advising and start assisting.
His answer raises the question of how often advisers to other Iraqi combat units, and Syrian rebels, will be drawn into combat against ISIS. Islamic State militants quite frequently prove to be much tougher opponents than the Iraqi military and Syrian rebels anticipated. American pilots flying Apaches against ISIS would certainly come under fire.
Also, U.S. advisers embedded with Syrian rebel units could quite possibly find themselves facing Russian air support and Iranian ground troops. Unless, as disputed rumors have it, moderate Syrian rebels give up on rebellion, dedicate themselves to fighting ISIS, and drop off Moscow’s target list, U.S. special forces may be forced to spot for air strikes against Iranian or Lebanese Hezbollah units working under Russian air cover.
Acknowledgement that President Obama’s strategies in Iraq and Syria have failed is spreading slowly through the Administration, and is beginning to catch the eye of mainstream media outlets.
On Tuesday, the L.A. Times noted that the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford Jr., gave testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee which “appeared to contradict upbeat assessments by the White House last month that indicated Assad’s government had suffered a series of military losses and was losing control.”
Not only did Dunford conceded that “the balance of forces right now are in Assad’s advantage,” but he told the Senate, “No one is satisfied with our progress to date.”
Nevertheless, the L.A. Times wrote of President Obama coordinating with Saudi Arabia to increase support for the “moderate” Syrian rebels. Those rebels have evidently been hitting Syrian tanks with American anti-tank missiles, but it is highly unlikely such measures could counteract Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime. The very last weapon Western powers are likely to put in the Syrian rebellion’s arsenal would be effective anti-aircraft missiles, due to their obvious allure to terrorists.
The Administration’s emphasis in Syria appears to be shifting entirely to combat against ISIS, including a planned assault on its Syrian capital of Raqqa, which would suit the Russians, Iranians, and Syrian regime. The Obama Administration appears to be slowly accepting that its Syria strategy is beyond hope – Assad is not going anywhere – but it might just be possible to salvage something in Iraq, even if it means the President’s cherished talking points about “no boots on the ground” must be sacrificed.