Quicksand

Recently, the United States has been increasing its military presence on the ground in Syria. The additional deployments have good intentions, but could very easily make the situation worse.


US Army Stryker armoured fighting vehicles outside the town of Manbij in northern Syria. (Photo: NPR)

US Army Stryker armoured fighting vehicles outside the town of Manbij in northern Syria. (Photo: NPR)

The 59 Tomahawk missiles that came raining down on Shayrat air base near Homs on the night of 5th April 2017 let the world know that the United States was still willing to flex its military muscle in the Middle East. The strike was simply another example of an increasing American presence in the Syrian civil war, and was a clear example of the lack of US strategy. It has led to heightened tensions with Russia, which could endanger American troops on the ground.

On 4th March 2017 US Army troops of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment arrived on the outskirts of the town of Manbij in northern Syria in Stryker armoured fighting vehicles. By 8th March a task force of US Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in northern Syria to support the upcoming assault on the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (IS), Raqqa. These two deployments are a significant build up of American military forces in Syria, and although well-intentioned, they could easily have dire consequences.

The deployment of US Army Rangers near Manbij was intended to prevent fighting between groups with common enemies. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish-Arab militias, was clashing with Turkish-backed rebels in the area. The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia which Turkey considers to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. However, the SDF and the Turkish-backed rebels are both simultaneously fighting IS, and the presence of the Rangers is intended to re-focus the efforts of both groups towards fighting their common enemy. The Marines, on the other hand, are present near Raqqa in order to support the upcoming assault on the IS stronghold. The unit contains an artillery battery armed with M-777 Howitzers, which are capable of firing powerful 155mm shells about 32km (20 miles). The battery will provide fire support for the US-backed local forces who will actually go into Raqqa.

A US Marine Corps artillery piece in action. (Photo: BBC)

A US Marine Corps artillery piece in action. (Photo: BBC)

IS is deemed to be the predominant threat and so US-allied local forces should be focusing their efforts on defeating them instead of fighting each other. If the only way to keep them the SDF and Turkish-backed forces apart is to send US Rangers to stand between them, then so be it. If the forces assaulting Raqqa will need extra firepower in the form of Marine artillery units, that provision should be made. However, the benefits these deployments may have must be balanced against the potential risks, of which there are many. The US forces, totalling nearly 1,000, are unfamiliar with the terrain of northern Syria, and are vulnerable to attack by larger forces. If American troops end up clashing with allied rebel groups, the integrity of the anti-IS coalition will be severely damaged.

The first issue with the deployment is that the role of American troops in combat operations in Syria has been vastly extended. Previously, the vast majority of US troops in the country were special forces units embedded with local rebel groups. The introduction of traditional infantry and lightly armoured units like the Rangers and Marines means that US forces are expecting to do more frontline fighting. However, in the long term this could prove disastrous. The main lesson to be learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that in insurgencies, foreign troops cannot do the bulk of the fighting because it requires a permanent presence. Although the war in Syria is not yet an insurgency, there is a high chance that when IS is on the brink of defeat, its fighters will melt away into the civilian populace and wage an insurgency, just like what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, this deployment must be temporary and the troops involved must be exfiltrated if an insurgency begins in order to prevent them becoming bogged down.

The second issue with the deployment is that it was decided without much foresight. The problem in Syria is not IS-dominated – it is fairly clear that they will, sooner or later, be defeated. The issue is about the post-IS future of the country, as all parties involved have different goals. The government of Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, wants to retake all of Syria. Kurdish groups want increased autonomy in the regions they control, and perhaps want to join the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Turkey wants a border buffer zone to prevent the Kurds from achieving that goal. The US is allied with both the Kurds and Turkey, and has deployed military units without much of a strategy for the post-IS future of the country.

The bottom line is that Syria is currently a quagmire. Unlike in Iraq, the US does not have a friendly cooperative government that it can use to defeat IS. Assad’s government must also be dealt with after IS collapses, and that will be no easy feat considering the support it has from Moscow and Tehran. With American and Russian troops now within “hand-grenade range” in some parts of Syria, some sort of military escalation seems inevitable. The US does not appear to have a plan for the future of the region after the fall of Raqqa. It jumped straight into the quagmire, and must move quickly before it becomes stuck.

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Akshay Narayan
Akshay Narayan

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