Do you remember anyone declaring that America is at war in Syria or Iraq?
And if not, why are we engaging in questionable and potentially very dangerous operations there – as if we were at war, and needed to put our troops’ lives on the line by taking risks we wouldn’t otherwise take?
This post isn’t a comprehensive survey of the Syria-Iraq situation. Others are already pointing out the danger of backing into armed conflict by inching ever closer to the battle lines while “advising and assisting.” (I’ve pointed it out in the past myself.)
But I’ve seen at least two things in the last few days that really bother me. They’re the kind of things we might take a less-cautious approach to if we were in a fight for our national survival, and we had no other choice. But in a discretionary operation overseas, where we have no firmly stated objectives and seem to be throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks, there can be no justification for putting our people in danger this way.
The first item comes from reporting that some of our special forces are wearing the insignia of the Kurdish YPG – the “People’s Protection Units” guerrillas fighting ISIS – near the front line of the fighting with ISIS in Syria. Special forces operators were recently snapped by an AFP photographer wearing the green YPG armband.
DOD spokesman Peter Cook shrugged this off in questioning on Thursday (26 May), giving a vague explanation:
“I’m not going to comment about specific photos,” Cook said. “What I will say is that special operations forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.”
Pressed, Cook went on to say:
“And special operations forces in the past have worked with partners, and in the past have conducted themselves in such a way that they — that they might operate in an atmosphere in which they are supportive of that local force in their advise and assist role.
“And they might be, again, for visual purposes, might be blending in with the local community. So…”
This may have a plausible sound to it, but there are a couple of major concerns. One is that – as noted by the reporters interrogating Cook – the U.S. is in a touchy relationship with our NATO ally Turkey, partly because of Turkey’s problems with Kurdish insurgents and American support of Kurds in Iraq and Syria. This isn’t just an academic issue. Turkey is bombing, raiding, and pounding Kurdish guerrillas with artillery fire in parts of Syria and Iraq. There is nothing perfectly normal or ordinary about having our commandos creep around blending with armed Kurdish combatants under such conditions.
The other major concern is the ambiguous status of our special operators, when they dress up as someone else. This isn’t a measure to be taken lightly. It isn’t clear how it might run afoul of the Geneva Convention, but that’s precisely the problem. It would actually be a simpler situation to parse out, if the conflicts in Syria and Iraq could be defined more easily in terms of Geneva Convention rules.
The issue is less one of prisoner-of-war treatment – which in this chaotic theater has less application than we’re used to – than of accountability for the conduct of combat. Can our men be lumped in with the YPG, for purposes of retaliation, retribution, prosecution? Will they be complicit in killing civilians, as the YPG inevitably does? What if they have to defend their lives against Turkish forces? What will their protections be from the United States? Does Congress agree with any decisions that have been made about that?
The stray references by Peter Cook to “blending in with the local community” are troublesome as well. What does it mean, exactly? According to the Geneva Convention, blending in with the “community” may be exactly the wrong thing to do, if you want to retain your status as a lawful combatant. The chief distinction of a lawful combatant is that you can tell him apart from the non-combatants.
(Note: as this was going to post, news updates indicated that U.S. special forces were “ordered to remove Kurdish insignia.” This is good news, but the reservations I went through above remain valid, as does the pattern of accepting strange risks in Inherent Resolve. Something as undesirable as this is guaranteed to come up again. It’s still worth alerting people to.)
None of these concerns has to be a showstopper if the justification for fighting in the first place is overwhelming enough. War is a business of sucking up what you have to do. But we’re not “at war.” There isn’t even an “AUMF” – authorization for the use of military force – covering our operations in Syria. There’s only the vestige of an expired one covering Iraq.
And I think I’m on firm ground in saying that the American people don’t think we’re in a desperate war for national survival in the Mesopotamian theater. Why are we taking such risks with our men in uniform?
Or with our women, for that matter, who are undoubtedly part of the deployment of B-52s to provide air support for Operation Inherent Resolve. This is item two on my arbitrary hit list.
I fully understand that the B-52 Stratofortress – better known as the BUFF (“Big Ugly Fat F***er”; also rendered by the old school as the BUF) – has some new chops to display for close air support. There are reasons why it makes a little more sense than it would have two decades ago, to use a strategic bomber for this less-accustomed role. (The same reasons also give this deployment a whiff of “proof-of-concept demonstration,” with an asset that happens to be available, rather than an aspect of strict necessity.)
But using B-52s to deliver JDAMs for close air support (CAS) brings them down pretty close to the ground, in B-52 terms. Ground-pounders are dubious in any case of the value of most high-flyers for CAS. Some of the high-flyers – the Air Force and Navy strike-fighters – just have to fly too fast. They all prefer to fly too high. And for the B-52, that’s not just a fuel consideration. The plane is neither stealthy nor maneuverable. Get it down low enough and it’s the biggest thing in the sky for anti-air missiles to go after. Even missiles that don’t need integrated radar tracking and command/control may get a shot at it – which means that electronic warfare support from an escort aircraft won’t necessarily give the B-52 complete protection. Guerrilla forces have figured out how to shoot down less vulnerable war planes than the B-52.
That package of considerations is one thing if we are absolute owners of the air space we’re operating in. But in Syria and Iraq, we’re not.
The Russians exercise the decisive veto over what happens in Syrian air space now. We fly there at their sufferance; they have at least as much radar coverage of Syria as Turkey and the U.S. do, and more defensive coverage with front-line anti-air missiles.
But we also mustn’t write off the guerrilla forces fighting on the ground in Syria and northern Iraq, including ISIS. Shoulder-fired MANPADs aren’t the only things they may have. Between the old Saddam Hussein regime and the Assad regime, there are any number of more-capable anti-air systems floating around the theater, mostly Russian-made and some quite modern. There are also anti-air systems ferried over from Libya after the fall of Qaddhafi, some of which, if delivered intact, could give ISIS, the Kurds, or Sunni guerrilla groups a meaningful anti-air capability, at least for showy one-off shootdowns.
From these potential sources of anti-air systems could come not just the old SA-6 (“Gainful”) anti-air missile system, of which ISIS has had some pieces/parts since 2014 (here/here), but the Russian Tor and Buk missile systems (lower-altitude threats) and the modern SA-22 (“Greyhound”), or Pantsyr-1 (a higher-altitude threat), all in the Syrian inventory. Additional possibilities are the French-made Crotale system and Russian SA-8 (“Gecko”), which the Qaddhafi regime had.
These mobile, tactical systems do require all their components to function, and it isn’t likely that guerrilla fighters have acquired enough to make them operational. But it isn’t impossible either.
Assuming that the threat can’t be there is the kind of thing that poses less danger when our overall advantages are overwhelming – but more danger with each decline in advantage. And we are not in an overwhelmingly advantaged situation in Syria or Iraq. We’re parted out all over the place in small numbers, present but not organized for decisive combat. In some places, in fact, our advantages are more perceived than real.
Flying a huge, non-maneuverable aircraft low enough to deliver JDAMs for CAS is inherently risky, and especially so in a non-quiescent environment like Syrian air space. The Kurdish insurgents of the PKK have already demonstrated that they possess an advanced, Russian-made shoulder-fired missile, which they used this month to shoot down two Turkish military helicopters in southeastern Turkey. While this shootdown was at a lower altitude than a B-52 would fly, it’s a reminder that the insurgents of the region are in fact laying their hands on modern weaponry, and cannot be assumed to present no threat to relatively low, relatively slow flyers.
Yet we seem to be making that assumption about the anti-air threat in Syria. There are times when you have to accept higher risk, because of the importance of the objective. But increasingly, in Syria and Iraq, we’re accepting higher risk than the political importance of our actual objective really warrants.
In general policy terms, we should arm up, change our strategy, regain the advantage, and fight this one for truly meaningful objectives – none of which has to involve a big Iraqi Freedom-style ground operation – or we should get out.