The entry of U.S. special operations forces into northern Syria to energize the fight against the Islamic State comes as intelligence officials see the terror group as the most vulnerable it has been in some time.
IS has been accustomed to acting as an aggressor, but U.S. intelligence officials say its momentum “has largely been blunted” in Syria, where Kurdish forces are drawing closer to its de facto capital of Raqqa.
“It has suffered significant casualties, lost key leaders and can no longer rely on sweeping victories to boost morale,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA.
“If forces advancing from the north are successful in defeating ISIL in or around Raqqa, it would mark one of the few instances where ISIL has been defeated from a position of strength,” the official added, using an acronym for the terror group.
Advise and assist
That advance from the north is exactly the push the U.S. hopes to strengthen with the insertion of fewer than 50 special operations troops backed by increased air power, including A-10 Thunderbolt ground support aircraft and F-15 Eagle strike fighters out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
“This is a start,” a senior U.S. defense official said Friday, describing the mission as strictly advise and assist, with an emphasis on operational planning and logistics in order to help Syrian Kurds, Turkmen and Arab groups “take and hold territory.”
For now, the U.S. plan is to keep the special forces back from the front lines, at the headquarters of the various rebel elements taking on Islamic State fighters. As a result, they will not be able to help identify targets and call in precision airstrikes.
Still, their presence could give anti-IS forces, like some of the Kurdish forces, an advantage, including the ability to combine on-the-ground intelligence with electronic surveillance from U.S. drones and satellites.
“Putting those two together can help the Kurdish forces in planning attacks, directing where those attacks will take place and doing other things that will increase their effectiveness,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank.
A former member of the U.S. Army special forces, Jenkins said the insertion of special operations forces can also go a long way toward keeping anti-IS groups in the fight.
“This will enable us to more effectively coordinate that resupply, specifically if we are going to be doing more resupply of Kurdish forces from the air,” he said.
U.S. planners may be eyeing another benefit as well: forcing Turkey to hold off on airstrikes against Kurdish forces in the area.
“They’ve been attacking forces that have been making significant headway against ISIS," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, using another acronym for the Islamic State. “I think it is in U.S. interests to raise the price of going after the YPG, which is fighting against ISIS.”
There is concern, however, that such a strategy could turn U.S. forces in Syria into unwitting human shields.
“Let’s get these guys in Syria, so that way, the Russians know that our guys are on the ground, so they won’t bomb rebels anymore. The Turks know our guys are with the Kurds, so they won’t bomb them anymore,” said Michael Pregent, a former adviser embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga forces and now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“They’d also be able to say, ‘We didn’t know there were Americans there,’ ” he said.
Pregent, who was with the Peshmerga forces in Mosul, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006, warned that the U.S. plan appeared to be deeply flawed in other ways, starting with a lack of backup.
“What you do not do is telegraph that we are going to be sending 50 special operators into Syria when we have no ground forces in Syria,” he said. “Embedding with an indigenous force only works when you have conventional forces on the ground.”
The numbers, too, point to potential problems, given a standard U.S. military ratio of 10 special operators per 500 allied fighters.
Pregent said 2,500 rebel troops, even with U.S. advisers, are “not near enough to do anything” against an Islamic State force entrenched in one of its key strongholds.
Others also worry that a small contingent of U.S. special operations forces is not enough to change the course of events in Syria or in neighboring Iraq.
“We’ve seen this train-and-advise-and-embed,” said Patrick Skinner, a former intelligence officer now with The Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence consultancy. “We’ve seen this repeatedly over decades, and it almost has never worked.”
“We’re making tactical decisions and calling it a strategy,” he added.
Still, some analysts say the decision to send a small group of special operations forces into Syria shows the U.S. strategy may be on the right track.
“I think the Pentagon has learned and the administration has learned the hard way that it’s really hard to be effective with proxy forces if you’re not actually there with them,” said Jessica Ashooh at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, an international affairs research group.
Still, Ashooh called the potential payoff “good but not enormous.”
One senior U.S. defense official also tried to lower expectations, calling the move an effort “to gauge what's possible.”
And just because the U.S. sees the Islamic State as more vulnerable than in the past, it does not believe that making gains will be easy.
“ISIL has been backed into a corner before and often comes out swinging,” an intelligence official said.