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What Can 50 US Special Forces Soldiers Do In Syria?

By Paul Davis 1/11/2015
US Special Forces training in Germany. Photo: AFP
US Special Forces training in Germany. Photo: AFP

A further indicator of a policy change in American operations in the Middle East was announced recently. The Pentagon told the world that up to 50 Special Operation Force (SOF) soldiers were being deployed to Syria to advice and assist the Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters. This has been touted as the first US boots on the ground in Syria. The truth however is that CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin confirmed to the Senate Armed Services Committee back in September that US SOF was assisting YPG forces on the ground.

Unlike the September announcement, this last was done with much fanfare, and followed the successful Kurdish/US rescue raid in Hawija. The United States had also just prior, air dropped tons of weapons and ammunition to the Kurds and anti-Assad forces. The question now is, what can 50 soldiers do to assist forces that by themselves are greatly out number by the opposition, be it the Syrian Army plus Russian and Iranian support forces, or ISIS.

One of the original purposes of SOF was to train resistance forces and to do deep reconnaissance. The training mission may be part of this new operation but there is likely more. Most military operations are rarely announced in press releases before they happen. Had the Delta force soldier not been killed in the Hawija raid it is possible there would have been no mention of US involvement. So why now? 

The Syrian forces opposing Assad have been the main targets of Russian airstrikes. The Kurds have come under increasing attacks by Turkish forces along the border. The United States has gone to great pains to redirect both countries to concentrate on ISIS. US diplomacy has failed to make any progress in the region and has acquiesced to Iran and recently to both Iran and Russia on the road ahead in Syria. Why then send forces into Syria and only 50.

Taken at face value they are there only to advise and assist, to do so they must be embedded with the forces they are assisting. During the Cold War NATO forces were stationed in Berlin, a divided city in the middle of East Germany and surrounded by thousands of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. The NATO forces numbered in the hundreds and could not have done much to stop a Soviet attack on West Berlin. They were there as a trip wire. Should the Soviet Union decided to take West Berlin they would have had to engage US, British, and in the beginning French forces. The NATO forces would have fallen in short order but it would have triggered a western response.

Fifty SOF troops would be able to support and train a number of fighters, overtime, but the number would be limited by time and space required, in the case of Syrian rebels, to overcome what have now become long odds. Should it however be known that there are US forces with the Kurds and the rebels but not exactly where, targeting becomes more problematic. This would be especially true for Turkey which is a NATO country and ally of the United States. Russia, would need to take the risk of killing US forces under consideration, but would be less concerned having the excuse of being invited in by the legitimate government of Syria while US forces are essentially invaders supporting an insurgency. 

Trip wire forces have been successful historically, the Berlin Brigade, US Forces in Korea and others, there is however a caveat. The other side must believe there will be a consequence for attacking them. If Russia or Turkey feels there will be no repercussion there is no deterrent. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of boots on the ground the US sits down with Russia and Iran to hammer out a solution to Syria in which the US immediately backs away from its most basic demand, the removal of Assad.  These opposing actions do not send a consistent message as needed and could remove the fear of attacking the Kurds or the rebels as the US will not respond to the killing of US soldiers. Should the US fail to respond to attacks on trip wire troops the consequences would be felt in other areas the US is attempting to increase or project power. This would include the current NATO plans to place forces in Poland and the Baltic countries, as a warning against further Russian actions such as the Ukraine. The US is also challenging China over disputed areas in the South China Sea. 

The strategy of trip wire is historically sound, provided it is backed up. Should the threat fail and there is no response, the results could be catastrophic. While recent US strategic moves have not been shown to have a plan “B” in the event of failure it is hoped that there is sufficient concern for a US retaliatory action that the initial desire to deflect Russian and Turkish attacks will be successful.  

Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence and former Soviet analyst. He is a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently he is the President of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington D.C.


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ken | 1/11/2015
Watch out for turkey they will Attack to help Isis out.
| 1/11/2015
"What can 50 US Special Forces do in Syria?" Uh ah don't know! Uh duh maybe 'call in' a few thousand bombs worth of Air Strike for starters!
Nam | 1/11/2015
Numbers don't mean much. It's the realization that U.S. must get more involved that counts. U.S. has been paralyzed by Turkey's objection towards Kurds in Syria and I think the Americans finally realize that Turkey's has hurt U.S. interests quite significantly. So, now they're finally teaming teaming up with the Kurds and the YPG.
FAUthman | 1/11/2015
Russia will not attack the Kurds, and Turkey may reconsider its relations with the PYD once the Nov1 elections are over but a "trip wire" deterrent will be useful. But that is not why the 50 SOF are there. They are there to help the SDF defeat ISIS, I believe that. There is going to be a US air base there too with more US military and arms coming in. The SDF (the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces in Hasaka of mostly Kurds) have already engaged ISIS in Al-Hol a town halfway between Hasaka and Sinjar. Obama may be serious in defeating ISIS at least initially in Iraq and the focus may very well be now to cut off the supply line between Raqqa and Sinjar before the campaign to liberate Sinjar and Mosul is launched.
Rizgar | 1/11/2015
The Russians are unlikely to attack Kurds But the Turks were on the verge of attack. Let's hope that embedding 50 Americans with the Kurdish forces will deflect imminent Turkish attack on YPG.

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