Last Friday, the White House announced that it would be sending US Special Forces troops to Syria to assist moderate rebel groups in northern Syria combat the Islamic State (IS). This is a sharp departure from previous US policy in the fight against IS, which ruled out any “boots on the ground.”
The US has been conducting an aerial bombing campaign with its coalition of Gulf and NATO states since summer 2014 while simultaneously training moderate rebels in Syria to combat the Assad regime and IS. However, the multi-million dollar program to train these moderate rebels only produced a handful of fighters and has since been defunded and replaced by this new program. Preceding these two operations, the White House released statements claiming that the US would not get involved militarily in the Syrian Civil War, of which IS is an active participant.
There appears to be a pattern of the US overturning its prior Syrian policy declarations as the Syrian Civil War continues, becoming more militarily involved in the war with every passing year. There is a phrase for the concept of becoming more involved in a conflict as time goes on: mission creep.
After announcing the plans to send Special Forces troops to Syria to conduct raids against IS, rescue missions, and training programs with moderate rebels in northern Syria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest quickly tried to quell fears of mission creep. He stated that US troops will not be involved in “combat missions,” but would rather act in a supporting role for rebel groups. The problem with his insistence – that the US public should not fear mission creep in the war against IS – is that mission creep is clearly alive and well in the US’s Syria policy, including the war against IS.
The US has gone from stating that it would have no military involvement in Syria, to stating that it would conduct airstrikes and training programs, to finally stating that it would keep US forces on the ground and place those forces in potentially dangerous situations. While the current plans are nothing like the massive ground operations conducted under the Bush administration, it could, based on the US’s continually expanding role in Syria, begin to resemble what we saw a decade ago in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The White House is hoping that involving the US Special Forces will spark the seizure of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS. The Islamic State has been losing ground around Raqqa in recent weeks to US-backed rebel groups and, with this injection of highly-trained commandos, these rebel groups could begin to make even larger gains. However, the US has previously had high hopes during its fight against IS which have ultimately fallen flat. Eight months ago, the Pentagon stated that Ramadi, the center of IS control in Iraq, would be taken by April. Despite a massive Iraqi offensive, the city still remains under IS control.
The war against IS has proven unpredictable and, because of its unpredictability, the US has been forced to expand its role in the fight. That is why Earnest’s insistence that the US will not engage in combat missions in the future against the Islamic State must be taken with a grain of salt.