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ANALYSIS

What Special Operation forces advisers could bring to the fight in northern Syria

By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: October 30, 2015

WASHINGTON — Fewer than 50 Special Operations force advisers are to deploy to northern Syria to "help coordinate local ground forces" in their fight against the Islamic State, according to senior administration officials Friday.

The small number of troops, though seemingly innocuous, indicates a significant escalation in the United States' ongoing effort to defeat the Islamic State as it effectively dismisses the White House's notion of "no boots on the ground." Additionally, the troop involvement in northern Syria is a tacit acknowledgment that the current advise and assist mission requires significant changes to be effective.

Though it is unclear what Syrian groups the U.S. commandos will support, both Syrian Kurds and the newly christened Syrian Arab coalition operating in northern Syria have received U.S. materiel and close air support in the past-including a recent airdrop of weapons and ammunition.

Also unknown is the Special Operations Forces unit that will be embedded in northern Syria. In the past, the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group had led the now-defunct Pentagon-backed Syrian train and equip program, making it is possible that their potential knowledge of key players on the ground and battlefield dynamics would make them a prime candidate for the mission.

In addition to U.S. special operations forces, administration officials announced the movement of F-15 strike fighters and A-10 ground attack aircraft to Incirlik airbase in Turkey. While unclear what exactly those aircraft will be doing, it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to see A-10s supporting U.S. Special Operation Forces on the ground.

The A-10s ability to take a punishing amount of ground fire and to move low and slow over the battlefield makes it the premier platform for supporting ground assets.

The U.S. troops will undoubtedly bring other assets to the fight including secure communications, JTACS (combat air controllers), as well as advanced medical training. Communication equipment when used properly, is more lethal than any amount of rockets and small-arms that the advisors might bring to the fight.

Though indigenous forces have been supported by U.S. airstrikes in the past, the presence of American JTACs would make for faster, more accurate targeting and would cut out a large amount of the lag time that has been a hallmark of coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the past. Without JTACs on the ground, clearance for strikes is usually communicated through various channels before the aircraft is allowed to drop its ordnance.

Yet even though U.S. forces will undoubtedly help those fighting on the ground in northern Syria, there are lingering questions about what type of assets will be at the small group's disposal. The unit will require a dedicated supply chain as well as a quick reaction force/dedicated combat search rescue element in the event that they are put in a situation they cannot fight their way out of.
 

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