Since the President’s horrendous decision to pull US Special Forces, as well as the US Marine Corps artillery batteries supporting them out of Syria, a cottage industry has sprung up among the President’s supporters and defenders that this is really the fault of President Obama because President Obama and his administration either had no Syria strategy or they had a bad one. And that this is the ultimate driver of the President’s betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish and Arab partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces that has enabled Erdogan to begin a campaign that will likely include an attempted ethnocide of Syria’s Kurds.
Some of these defenders would not know, let alone understand, low intensity warfare and/or strategy and policy if it walked up and bit them. Some actually know better. But all of them are actually grappling with a strawman. President Obama and his administration had two different, but related strategies regarding Syria. The first was to quite simply not get sucked into the Syrian Civil War. Humanitarian assistance would be provided to refugees seeking shelter in adjacent states, internally displaced Syrians that made it to where the US was operating along the Syrian-Iraqi border or within Syria would be provided for and protected, but the US would not get pulled into the Syrian Civil War, and the underlying proxy wars by regional powers that had been partially driving it, and risk escalating that conflict as it would have regional consequences. Frankly, from a semi-informed observer as this was playing out, this drove a number of President Obama’s actual advisors and senior national security officials nuts as several of them wanted the US to intervene because of the humanitarian crisis being created by the Syrian Civil War. Instead President Obama opted for what was, essentially, a containment strategy of trying to keep the Syrian Civil War and the proxy wars being fought by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran under its cover contained within Syria so as not to destabilize the rest of the region.
This strategy was really an assumption of risk strategy in order to buy time. The US, as the leader and largest and most militarily powerful member of the multinational coalition operating in the area, would assume the risk that the Syrian Civil War and the proxy wars for regional hegemony subsumed within it, would and could be kept within Syria. That they would not spill out and over its borders and negatively impact Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel. And that they wouldn’t negatively effect the two sets of high level diplomatic negotiations being undertaken in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative of 2014 and what we now know were the JCPOA+5 negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear energy and weapons programs. President Obama had decided to play for time. To assume the risk that either the Syrian Civil War, the proxy wars for regional hegemony taking place within it, or both wouldn’t blow up into a larger conflagration, spill over Syria’s borders, and engulf the entire region.
It is also important to remember that in 2013, when Bashar Assad’s chemical attack on his own citizenry crossed the red line that President Obama had unequivocally stated, there were calls for both a retaliatory strike to punish and deter Assad and for Congress to weigh in before any action was taken, President Obama did, in fact, seek Congressional approval for such a strike. The majority Republican House of Representatives refused to provide President Obama with the authorization to make that strike and enforce the red line he had set. Congressman Paul Ryan, the chair of House Budget Committee at the time, went so far as to assert that the called for strikes would not achieve US strategic objectives and that they would be “feckless show of force” that would “only damage our credibility”. A New York real estate developer and reality TV star named Donald Trump tweeted that “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.” As a result of Congress denying him explicit military authorization to engage Syrian military targets outside of the Authorization for Military Force for the global war on terror, President Obama did not order a strike.
The Obama administrations’s second Syria strategy was for pursuing the campaign against ISIS. Specifically to apply low intensity and unconventional warfare doctrine to reduce ISIS’s physical caliphate that spanned Iraq and Syria’s shared border, and, ultimately, to reduce ISIS. This is the “by, with, and through” strategy that I’ve referenced here before and that you may have seen mentioned or referred to in news reports and other analyses. Simply put the “by, with, and through” strategy focuses on finding reliable host country partners who are willing to fight on their own behalf and then sending the US’s unconventional warfare specialists, the Green Berets (Special Forces) to embed with them in a train, advise, and assist mission. This is a very, very light footprint strategy. Small teams of US Special Forces known as Operational Detachments Alpha (ODAs), with specific enablers from other elements of US Special Operations Forces and, most likely some of the CIA’s paramilitary operators at the outset, as well as a small support element were sent into Syria to identify, recruit, and vet local Syrians that would then be trained, advised, and assisted with operations against ISIS. Eventually a small contingent of US Marine artillery were also moved into the US led Coalition’s theater of operations in Syria to provide fire support for the ODAs and their host country partners they were embedded with.
Train, advise, and assist has a very specific meaning here. Training means that the Soldiers on the ODAs would teach the Syrian Kurds and Arabs that are known as the Syrian Democratic Forces how to fight more effectively against ISIS. These host country fighters didn’t need to be taught how to fight, both the Syrian Kurds and Arabs have their own ways of war. What the Special Forces Soldiers on the ODAs did do was to teach them to fight more effectively at the tactical and operational levels against the specific type of enemy that is ISIS within the theater strategy that was established based on the US’s national strategy against ISIS. Training blends into advising and assisting, especially in regard to logistics and planning. As the Syrian Democratic Forces became a more effective host country fighting force, especially within the context of the type of campaign that had been designed to reduce ISIS’s physical caliphate, defeat them, and then retard their ability to continue to terrorize and destabilize the region*, the US Special Forces would do less assisting in the actual combat operations. Part of the assistance was also air support. The US led Coalition flew sorties day and night as necessary to degrade ISIS targets on the ground. Here is the link to the continually updated list of these sorties and strikes.
The US and its coalition partners had been trying to successfully adapt and implement a “by, with, and through” strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan since GEN (ret) Petraues’s revised Counterinsurgency Manual, FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency, arrived to great fanfare in the mid aughts. The key idea behind a “by, with, and through” strategy is to empower the lowest societal level you can work with, ie the population layer/element, work from that level up (work from the bottom up), and then reconcile the tactical and operations gains made with the state to state strategic efforts, such as diplomatic initiatives and the use of economic and information power, being made at the top end. This never really worked during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom (OIF and OEF) because we didn’t actually institute a true “by, with, and through” strategy. Rather, we had US Conventional Forces and our Coalition partners, also usually Conventional Forces, trying to implement and realize something that is the specialty of US Special Forces. I’m not knocking the efforts put in or the actual tactical and operational successes achieved, as there were and are many, just that the size of Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to have Conventional Forces work outside their expertise by undertaking an unconventional warfare strategy, did not lead to theater strategic success. Often because of failures at the national and theater strategic levels and despite the tactical and operational successes.
The size, scope, and scale of OIF and OEF made it impossible to let Special Forces take the lead as we simply do not have enough Green Berets to work one entire theater the size of Iraq, let alone two with the second theater being the size of Afghanistan. Even if we pulled in all the other US Special Operations Forces – SEALs, Operational Detachment Delta/Delta Force, Rangers, Air Commandos, Recon Marines, the Intelligence Support Activity (Gray Fox/Field Operating Group), Civil Affairs, and PSYOPers – and had them pick up the slack while ignoring their own missions and mission specialty areas, we still wouldn’t have had enough Special Operations Forces to do the job. There is a reason that Marines and Special Operations Forces fight battles and conventional Armies fight campaigns and wars in the Land Domain; because the former do not have the capacity to scale to the latter.
The campaign against ISIS in Syria, however, was different. The theater of operations was limited in size. We had been able to identify, recruit, vet, and then train reliable host country partners that we and our Coalition allies could work “by, with, and through”. A limited number of Operational Detachment Alphas, plussed up with personnel from other SOF elements, with a small support element and a small amount of Marine artillery batteries for fire support were tremendously successful! Perhaps beyond anyone’s legitimate expectations based on the mixed results from trying to apply the “by, with, and through” strategy during the latter portions of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. And that success carried over to maintaining the peace in the area of operations once ISIS’s physical caliphate had been reduced. About 1,000 US Special Forces and Special Operating Forces, working with the SDF, had been able to reduce ISIS’s physical caliphate to nothing because the SDF, as the host country partners, did the hard, dangerous, and deadly work. Which is why the SDF suffered over 10,000 killed in action and the US Special Forces partnering with them suffered zero KIA in this campaign.
What the President has thrown away with his rash and ill considered pull out and betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, and what his defenders and supporters don’t understand in their rush to defend him by blaming all of this on President Obama and his administration, is just how successful this campaign against ISIS has been. How much reward we reaped in exchange for the amount of blood and treasure wagered and risk assumed. And how well it was working to maintain the peace in this area of Syria by preventing ISIS from reestablishing a stable physical ground base of operations from which to try to reestablish the physical caliphate.
There wasn’t one single Obama administration strategy for Syria, there were two distinct and specific strategies. The first was to assume risk by not intervening in the Syrian Civil War in order to buy time for what were considered to be other regional priorities – the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the JCPOA+5 negotiations and the reduction of ISIS. The second was an unconventional warfare strategy to degrade and reduce ISIS’s physical caliphate and reduce ISIS’s capacity to continue to terrorize and destabilize the region. While the first strategy’s efficacy is debatable, the second strategy to counter ISIS has been successful beyond all possible expectations. And the President has thrown away all of that success and by doing so betrayed our Syrian Kurdish and Arab partners, weakened and diminished the United States power and ability to project power, and degraded our moral standing. He has further destabilized the region. He has handed the Russians, the Syrians, the Iranians, and the Turks a victory without them having to actually contest for it. And he has most likely set the conditions for Erdogan to try to finally solve his Kurdish problem.
This post is dedicated to the late Sergeant First Class (ret) Terry Caldwell. Terry was my Area Specialty Officer (ASO) and taught me everything I know about small team operations and the practical realities of asymmetric, irregular, and unconventional warfare. Rest well Old Man!
* Interestingly enough the chart at the previous link is based on the four phases of conventional warfare, not the seven phases of unconventional warfare used by US Special Forces, which is the result of the commend element of CJTF-OIR being a conventional 3 star Corps headquarters. There is also a full description of the campaign at that link.
Disclosure: In May 2015 I was on site to present the kickoff and keynote briefing of XVIII Airborne Corps’ strategic assessment week and was on site throughout the week as the cultural subject matter expert/cultural advisor as their preparation for assuming command of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. The briefing focused on the regional strategic and geo-strategic considerations of the Levantine problem set and the campaign against ISIS. It was specifically prepared for the Commanding General, Command Group, senior staff, as much of their staff as could be jammed into the auditorium, and a variety of attendees by secure videoteleconference at a number of outstations. Also in attendance were several senior leaders (general officers) from our Coalition partners who were on the Coalition senior staff. In the weeks after the briefing I prepared a strategic assessment on how to leverage the campaign against ISIS to set the conditions in the theater of operations to secure the peace after the termination of military operations. My work for XVIII Airborne Corps was as a private consultant being paid on contract. I was asked to do this work by the then Corps’ G5 (Officer in Charge of Plans), who I’d both previously worked with at III Corps and who was a student at USAWC when I was the cultural advisor at both. My civilian mobilization/appointment as a senior civil servant at both USAWC and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Security Dialogue assigned to US Army Europe were not political appointments. I was not then, nor have a I ever been, part of President Obama’s appointed foreign policy, national security, and/or defense policy team, though I did provide significant support to a number of those appointees during my civilian mobilization from 2010 through 2014.