Obama’s diplomatic shift in Syria

Obama’s diplomatic shift in Syria

On Friday, President Obama announced that the United States is to deploy around 50 Special Forces troops to Syria, after repeatedly ruling out US “boots on the ground” action in the country.

Obama started his first mandate with the ambition to keep US troops out of the Middle East.  In this context, Obama always insisted that no American troops would be sent to Syria’s grounds.

However, on Friday, after talks at the Vienna conference, the Obama administration revealed that they are planning to deploy around 50 Special Forces troops to Syria.

A diplomatic shift

President Obama crossed his own red line – which can be seen as a diplomatic shift.

Many members of the Democratic Party worry that this move could take the US into a deeper conflict – even though the White House insists that this is not a combat mission.

The Special Forces troops’ role is to train, advise and assist the local Kurdish and Arab forces currently fighting ISIS. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said their mission is “to build the capacity of local forces”.

American officials hope that commandos will help the local allies to put pressure on the Islamic State, by blocking routes into cities such as Raqqa and targeting leaders.

The White House describes this move as an intensification of their initial strategy in Syria, to help local allies fight ISIS.

Political motives at the core of the decision

No more than 50 troops will be sent to Syria. This small number does not reflect a large military mission. Regional experts claim that Obama’s slow ramp could be insufficient to overcome the ISIS militants.

Obama’s foreign policy has been characterised by incremental steps that minimize risk and US involvement. Although it is a diplomatic shift to deploy US troops to Syria’s ground, the small number of the troops and their purely advisory role demonstrate that this decision is still in line with Obama’s risk aversion approach.

The small number of US troops suggests that political reasons, rather than a military objective, are the roots of the move.

Obama has been criticised for his perceived inaction in Syria and his inability to rein in Russia. Domestically, this move enables the Obama administration to address these critiques.

On the international scene, it gave more credibility to the US’ desired role in the debate about Syria’s future in Vienna –especially faced to Russia.

This announcement comes in just a month after Russia began military operations in Syria, supporting Assad’s regime. Putin’s intervention has definitely played a role in triggering this American diplomatic shift.

Risks of proxy war

On Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared Special Forces troops would not fight Assad’s army, but only target ISIS militants.

This reflects a hesitant approach to the core of the problem. Assad is still the main cause of destruction in Syria.

The White House insists that it is not entering the Syrian civil war.

Despite the White House’s attempt to reassure Russia that the US troops were not targeting Russia’s protégé Assad; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned of the risk of a proxy war in Syria.

On Saturday, he declared, “I am convinced that neither the United States nor Russia of course want any kind of slide into a so-called proxy war. But to me it is obvious that this situation makes the task of co-operation between the militaries even more relevant”.

In the near future, Obama’s move could inspire other allies to send ground forces as well. This could result in game-changer military consequences for Syria.

About Author

Assia Sabi

Assia Sabi has previously worked in strategic foresight for several organisations related to the Middle Eastern economic and business environment, such as the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and MEC International Ltd. She holds a double degree with a BA in Politics and International Relations from University of Kent and Sciences Po Lille, a master degree from Sciences Po Lille and has just completed an Msc in International Management for the MENA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).