Team Obama’s Low-Risk, High-reward Move in Syria

Team Obama’s Low-Risk, High-reward Move in Syria

Contrary to critics, Obama’s decision to deploy Special Operations troops to Syria is neither a giant step forward into a quagmire, nor a meaningless symbolic gesture. In fact, as far as bang-for-buck analysis goes, Obama (again) demonstrates his ability to minimize risk and maximize benefit.

President Obama’s recent decision to deploy a small number (“fewer than 50”) of Special Operations troops to Syria is certainly promoting a lot of discussion. To the president’s left, cries are raising the specter of American military misadventures past and present. To his right, the criticism is that this is “too little too late”, a move that diminishes the presidency and America.

Talk of “Golidocks” and “just right” may be presumptuous, but there is little reason to panic and every reason to think that this move continues Obama’s trend of finding shrewd ways to increase America’s effectiveness and impact while only exposing American interests and personnel to minimal risks. It also ties neatly with his recent decision to robustly supply non-ISIS rebels with tank-busting TOW missiles.

Targeted deployment in Syria

As of now, the mission for these several dozen Special Operations troops is not to engage in combat alongside rebels, but to train, advise, and assist. To start, they will be deployed at a single location for the opposition in northern Syria, away from where Russian jets have been bombing targets (though officials acknowledged that this limited geographic scope could very well change in the future).

This means that most of the American troops’ efforts—and possibly all—will initially be collaborating with Syria’s Kurdish forces, who control most of Syria’s northernmost regions and whose zones of control border ISIS—not Syrian government—zones.

Thus, for now, the U.S. troops will be focusing their efforts on anti-ISIS operations, not anti-Assad ones, and officials have framed the deployment as a move against ISIS. The deployment to this region, which borders Turkey, will also likely act as a check on the increasing hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds, as having U.S. forces embedded there will limit Turkey’s ability to strike freely.

This is welcome, as it seems that Turkish President Erdogan has used recent terrorist attacks as an excuse to go after Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, especially after the main Kurdish political party in Turkey dealt him a major electoral setback in a recent election.

Republican hawks seem to lack an appreciation of just how effective even small numbers of Special Operations forces can be. Those on the left, meanwhile, are not recognizing how severely limited this deployment is.

Superior resource

Split into very small groups or even as individuals, Special Operations troops will be able to support dozens of allied rebel units in Syria and dramatically increase their effectiveness. With even just one troop embedded with an entire rebel unit of hundreds of fighters, those fighters now have some of the most valuable assets in the world: a direct line to U.S. government intelligence and to American warplanes and those of its coalition partners.

State-of-the-art technology means a single operative is able to relay critical information form the broadest and deepest intelligence community the world has ever seen. This drastically improves rebel units’ ability to keep their own people safe, stay well supplied, find more opportune targets under less risky conditions, and generally stay one step ahead of ISIS (and potentially other) forces.

Conversely, this setup also makes all those enemies of the rebels far more vulnerable, either opening them up to more devastating attacks or confining their freedom of action. These are no small advantages in a war as tangled, convoluted, and capriciously see-saw as this one.

Finally, the rebels will have the advantages of being trained by some of the most professional, talented, vetted, and well-equipped personnel within the entire U.S. Military.

Beneficial set-up

To be sure, in addition to ISIS, the rebels still face a daunting alliance of Syria’s government forces, Iranian and Russian forces, and the near-army like militia of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. And yet, having the U.S. advantage puts the rebels in a relatively better position than before.

In addition, the quality of U.S. intelligence will also improve with access to dozens of on-the-ground sources of local intelligence, which will mean even better information going to the rebels in a kind of positive feedback loop.

Any subsequent American leader will hardly find themselves constrained in either escalating or ending involvement as a result of Obama’s limited move. With this deployment, the U.S. gains better intelligence, will see its allies perform better, will see its influence increased, and will place a check on rising hostilities between Turkey and the Kurds, both allies of America.

Indeed, the biggest risk involved is a small number of casualties. Yet Special Operations troops by definition sign up for missions that are far more risky than normal missions, and they are also better trained to handle them. After President Bush’s “Go Big, Lose Big” approach, perhaps we may appreciate Obama’s “Go Small, Win Small-to-to-Medium” tactics.

About Author

Brian Frydenborg

Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan, who earned his B.A. double-major in Politics and History at Washington and Lee University and holds an M.S. in Peace Operations awarded from the George Mason University School of Public Policy. His studies included abroad experiences in Japan, Liberia, and Israel/Palestine. He has had dozens of articles published across a variety of outlets, is one of the top bloggers for the Russian International Affairs Council, and has spent most of the last fifteen years studying, researching, and writing about (and occasionally practicing) politics, history, public policy, foreign policy, humanitarian aid, international development, and peace operations.