TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. Military Dives Deeper into the Syrian War
March 10, 2017

The U.S. Military Dives Deeper into the Syrian War

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• During his March 9 testimony to the U.S. Senate, commander of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel stated 400 Marines had recently arrived in Syria.

• These forces will provide artillery support for the military push into Raqqa, expected within weeks.

• A contingent of U.S. Army Rangers has been deployed to Manbij in a high-profile bid to prevent fighting between the various factions and armies in the crowded battlefield.

• Though the U.S. presence in Syria has been exclusively part of an anti-Islamic State mission, recent signs indicate it may be creeping towards broader and longer-lasting stability operations.

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Without much public attention and no congressional debate, the U.S. military is expanding both its presence and its operational parameters in Syria. Until now, the U.S. effort in Syria has been focused exclusively on fighting the so-called Islamic State. The U.S. has no domestic legal authorization to directly engage in the Syrian civil war; its fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria is authorized—somewhat tenuously—by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The previously acknowledged 503 semi-permanent military personnel in Syria have been comprised primarily of Special Operations Forces (SOF). That changed this week with the addition of 400 U.S. Marines who will provide artillery support in the gathering push towards Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State.

While the numbers remain small and will likely never come close to the scale of the U.S. military presence in Iraq during the Iraq war, the focus of the mission in Syria is beginning to broaden. A contingent of U.S. Army Rangers, perhaps two dozen or less, has been deployed outside of the pivotal town of Manbij in northern Syria. This unit is engaged in a high-profile and high-risk mission, not fighting the Islamic State, but keeping the various and competing non-Islamic State military forces around Manbij from fighting each other. The presence of the Rangers highlights how enormously complicated the Syrian battlefield is, particularly in northern Syria. 

Photos from Syria show heavily armored Stryker fighting vehicles prominently displaying the U.S. flag and markings of the 75th Ranger Regiment’s 3rd Battalion. The rare public display of the Ranger presence was, in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis, “a visible sign of deterrence and reassurance” to keep Turkish forces and Turkish-backed militias from attacking Kurdish forces that had retaken Manbij from the Islamic State. The U.S. has partnered closely with the Syrian Kurdish fighting force known as the YPG; Turkey, which has always been concerned about Kurdish influence and intentions both inside and near its borders, considers the YPG a terrorist entity aligned with the PKK and objects strongly to U.S. support.  

During his March 9 testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Army General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), stated that more conventional troops, as opposed to the SOF personnel, would perhaps be needed in the future after current combat operations. He stated, “As we move more towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations we will see more conventional forces requirements perhaps.” Such a commitment would be rather significant and lengthy, given what would undoubtedly be the most fragile of ceasefires between warring sides such as the Kurds, Turkey, the Assad regime, and its Iranian and Russian backers. Toppling the Islamic State will not end the group’s threat; it will continue to be a dangerous terror group long after it loses its self-proclaimed caliphate. Indeed, the complex battlefield in Syria, filled with competing objectives, ensures that the larger conflict will continue long after the Islamic State is toppled—a reality that the U.S. military appears to be tacitly acknowledging as it slowly increases the scope of its mission in the country.

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