The foolishness of this, when you reconstruct the whole picture, is almost unfathomable.
Reports began gathering steam on Friday, 16 September, that U.S. commandos arriving in the border town of Al-Rai, in northwestern Syria, were greeted by threats and jeers from our erstwhile allies, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Al-Rai was recently liberated from ISIS, and was part of ISIS’s small but tenaciously held territory west of the Euphrates on the border with Turkey.
The UK Telegraph picked up on early tweets with video of the small American contingent in Al-Rai, moving in unmarked vehicles. (All tweets below.) Telegraph noted some of the FSA taunts:
The fighters scream anti-American chants as a column of pick-up trucks carrying US commandos drives away from them.
“Christians and Americans have no place among us,” shouts one man in the video. “They want to wage a crusader war to occupy Syria.”
Another man calls out: “The collaborators of America are dogs and pigs. They wage a crusader war against Syria and Islam. ”
The US troops are not wearing traditional uniform but they carry American weapons and are wearing the distinctive round helmets favoured by US special forces.
As the Telegraph puts it, the U.S. special operators were “forced to run away.” Video does show them leaving the location where they were being screamed at.
At PJ Media, Patrick Poole includes video (the one from journalist/Twitter user Levent Kemal) with subtitles in English. The remarks translated in that video were no friendlier.
Others shout in Turkish, “Death to America! We will behead you!”
— Riam Dalati (@Dalatrm) September 16, 2016
— Levent Kemal (@leventkemaI) September 16, 2016
An article at the Wall Street Journal confirms that a U.S. contingent of 40 special operators has deployed to this area in Syria, in northern Aleppo Province, to work with the Turkish forces and the FSA to chase ISIS out of the area.
Turkey, you will remember, made a game-changing armed incursion into Syria on 24 August, a few miles east of Al-Rai at Jarablus, on the west bank of the Euphrates. It seemed that they had the U.S. go-ahead at the time – to enter Syria, and even to shoot at Kurds as they thought necessary – as well as the go-ahead from Russia, which is guarding the territorial prerogatives of the Russia-Iran-Assad alliance.
That said: what the Telegraph and WSJ delicately refer to as a complex web of alliances is actually a minefield, for any force that wanders into it with too small a footprint, and too small an objective, to take care of itself. That’s what the U.S. SOF contingent inserted into the middle of this mess is.
Not only is our force too small to have a decisive effect. America herself looks increasingly cynical and faithless to the parties in Syria, because of the way we have handled our operations there.
Obama has urgently sought to avoid exercising leadership. All he will do is back someone else’s play – and only to a limited degree. With all the moving parts in this scenario, that has inevitably meant shifting emphasis, on multiple occasions, over time.
In September 2016, every ally we’ve had in Syria can now look back and say that some policy move by the United States has gotten them shot at, by our other allies or partners. Most recently, it’s been the Kurds, being shot up by the Turks. Earlier this summer, it was our Syrian rebel partners, being attacked by our negotiating partners the Russians. In spite of how Russia has treated our rebel partners on the ground in Syria, John Kerry is literally desperate to force closer coordination between Russian and U.S. military forces.
If you’re the Free Syrian Army, that’s how it looks to you: like working with the U.S. is just a way to call down fire on your position. In the strategically vital terrain of northern Aleppo, where the Russians have already been bombing for months, the last thing the FSA needs is help from Obama.
That’s the perspective you need to have as you consider this final piece of the puzzle. What is the operational plan for this current deployment by U.S. forces? WSJ lays it out:
The joint mission began Thursday night in the area near al-Rai along the border, the U.S. officials said. Ultimately, American and Turkish forces, along with the moderate rebel groups they support, will head east [actually west – J.E.] toward the northern Syrian town of Dabiq, an Islamic State stronghold with potent symbolism for both sides. Dabiq inspired the name of Islamic State’s propaganda magazine, and is prophesied by the group to be the site of its final battle with the West. That makes it a prized target for its foes.
I can appreciate the antiseptic tone in which Western media report the imputed significance of Dabiq to ISIS and Sunni Islam (see here and here for additional discussion of how Dabiq has figured in military ops in Syria since 2014). We Westerners, of course, do not believe that there will be an Armageddon-type battle at Dabiq. Whatever our belief systems – Christianity, Judaism, post-modern secularism – we don’t accept the prophetic interpretations of Sunni Islam on this point.
But we are fools to think that because we disbelieve it, it doesn’t matter. There is hardly any other place in Syria where we could have inserted U.S. troops to more confrontational and alarming effect. As our vice president might say, this was really effing stupid.
ISIS didn’t just make up the significance of Dabiq. The Turks and the Free Syrians are Sunni Muslims too, and although they don’t agree with the ISIS vision, per se, for a Salafi caliphate, they have no trouble thinking of Syria as “Bilad Al-Sham” – the “land of the left hand,” as designated in the earliest days of Islam – and its sites named in Sunni prophesy as theirs to argue over and defend.
Nothing could so surely turn our allies against us as going after a site like Dabiq. That’s especially the case when our reputation for bad faith and ineptness has become ever better established. The FSA will think twice about fighting for Dabiq alongside an America whose chain is being visibly jerked by both Russia and Turkey – with Iran holding the nuclear “deal” and a handful of hostages over us at any given time, for good measure. Stick with the USA long enough, and everyone in Syria will be shooting at you, while America negotiates with them.
A few hours after the initial reporting, it’s not clear what the status of the U.S. SOF contingent is. But the wisest course for America at this point is to withdraw.
Those who know me know that I don’t say this lightly or enthusiastically. I’ve been called a “neocon interventionist,” and not in a good way, because I’m pretty much the opposite of Ron Paul when it comes to national security policy. I don’t believe in the fantasy of a “Fortress America” that can magically wish away the rest of the world and avoid engaging with it. Nor do I think there is any future for an America that behaves like most of the other nations, spending all our time polishing explanations of how the dog ate our homework, and how only the most cynically selected things are our problem. I disagree strongly that the world can function well without the special American brand of leadership.
But that’s the point. We don’t have that leadership today. Obama can’t handle this, with the good faith and effectiveness Americans and our allies deserve. And he will continue heaping debilitating constraints on any of his decision-makers who might be able to.
The accelerated pace at which things are moving in both Syria and Iraq suggests that we may not have until January before the fighting there puts our deployed troops in mortal danger. They are still scattered in relatively small numbers, as they have been since Obama began deploying them “against ISIS” in 2014. They’re not organized and equipped to fight on their own if they have to (not even the relatively larger task force in Irbil); they remain dependent on the local forces they are embedded with.
This is a very dangerous and unstable situation, and since Obama can’t manage it properly, we need to just cut the cord. It would not be satisfactory, by any means, to regroup outside the theater of battle, maintaining a marginally responsive posture with some minimal capabilities in the region. But it wouldn’t be as bad as letting the operational vulnerability of our troops get any worse.