- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2016

President Obama’s decision to send a few hundred special operations forces into Syria is a good step, military analysts say, but the limited deployment underscores his opposition to any significant American ground forces to directly fight the Islamic State.

That prohibition means the Islamic State’s network of safe havens centered around Raqqa, Syria, from where it orchestrates deadly attacks in Europe, will stay in operation indefinitely.

In the near term, adding 250 U.S. troops, mostly special warriors, to the 50 previously inserted in Syria should result in an accelerated process to assemble, train and advise the anti-Islamic State Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.

The Americans also can put eyes on targets for coalition strike aircraft that are trying to whittle down the Islamic State’s army, piece by piece, without harming civilians.

The process has been slow. And at fewer than 10,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and Kurds, there probably are not sufficient numbers of local fighters at this point to require more than 300 U.S. advisers in Syria.

The SDF simply lacks the numbers and firepower to take over and occupy a city the size of Raqqa. They have taken some large areas from the Islamic State, but have been in a stalemate in recent months trying to capture a single smaller village near the Turkish border.

“The 250 special operations forces to help put together a Sunni Arab army of some description is a good step in the right direction. Absolutely,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. “But that still will mean we’re likely nowhere near destroying the safe haven in Syria and taking the [Islamic State] capital city of Raqqa until at best sometime in 2017.”

Mr. Keane, who advised war commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the time lag leaves the all-important safe havens in place.

“The success of ISIS is largely tied to the safe haven it has in Syria,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “It is from that safe haven that they conduct Internet operations [and] recruiting, fund all their military operations, and it is where they command and control every major function. And we have never had a plan or a strategy to destroy the safe haven.”

He added: “What the president has resisted is putting together an Arab coalition, which would likely involve some U.S. troops as well, which is what Saudi Arabia offered a long time ago. And the United States said no to it. That is the only way you get this thing done sooner.”

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who has publicly advocated a more aggressive air campaign, wondered why it took the White House so long to send forces into Syria, the heart of the Islamic State.

“It’s a move in the right direction, but too little too late,” Mr. Deptula said. “We’ve been engaged for almost two years. We should have had a good number in Syria from the beginning. Second, why are we announcing to the enemy the size of the special forces they need to deal with?”

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook emphasized at a briefing Monday that the total of 300 special operations forces in Syria will not engage in direct combat but will be “force multipliers” to enable the locals to fight better.

“They will not be on the front lines,” he said, meeting an Obama requirement that there be no “boots on the ground” engaged in actual combat.

But analysts say the administration is playing word games. They note that U.S. Marines set up a counterartillery fire base south of Mosul, Iraq, and that a special terrorist-hunting task force of commandos was inserted into Iraq. Also, American advisers headquartered with the Iraqi army are moving closer to battle down to the battalion level.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has pressed publicly for the U.S. to do more in the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL. His top military adviser, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has talked of presenting options to the White House to ramp up U.S. involvement.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, chief of U.S. Central Command, said last month that retaking Mosul and Raqqa will require more American forces.

Mr. Obama announced the 250-troop move Monday while on a trip to Germany, saying, “They’re not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces.”

National security aide Ben Rhodes told reporters: “The question is, what is the mission that they’re being given? And the mission that they’re being given is not to go into Syria and to engage the enemy, to engage ISIL. So they’re not being sent there on a combat mission. They’re being sent there on a mission to, again, be advising, assisting and supporting the forces that are fighting against ISIL on the ground.”

The White House and the Pentagon have been giving upbeat assessments of the war, noting that the Iraqi town of Ramadi was recaptured and that the Islamic State has lost about 20 percent of its land in Syria.

There are now more than 4,000 U.S. troops in the Iraq-Syria theater.

“So we’re not deploying large ground combat units to take the place of those local forces,” Mr. Rhodes said. “And again, I think the proof that we’ve been consistent in that point is that anybody who has been following the progress of this campaign can see that the forces that have been fighting on the ground are the local Iraqi and Syrian forces.”

Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the first 50 commandos who entered Syria found locals willing to fight the Islamic State.

“I’m actually quite pleased with the progress that we’ve made, especially recently, through several of the circuit forces that we’ve [been] able to develop in northeastern Syria specifically,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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