Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How 50 US Troops in Syria Could Actually Make a Difference

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How 50 US Troops in Syria Could Actually Make a Difference

Article excerpt

The announcement that President Obama has authorized a busload- sized contingent of United States Special Operations Forces to deploy to Syria to "advise and assist" rebel forces has raised questions about what difference 50 people can really make in the Syrian war.

After all, they are essentially arrayed against the Syrian government, with its own army and Russian troops in direct support, not to mention Iran-backed Hezbollah militants. The Islamic State, meanwhile, has thousands of soldiers and a basic government infrastructure at its disposal.

A number of Republican lawmakers have essentially called the Special Forces deployment window dressing. It is "an incremental change that will not change the conditions on the ground," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in an appearance on MSNBC.

But experts say the troops could well be more than a token deployment. Specifically, their goal is to support a rebel alliance that has demonstrated concrete success in taking on Islamic State targets. And while about four dozen US troops "is a pretty marginal contribution of forces, what they may be able to do is cooperate more effectively with [rebel] forces on the ground," says Emma Ashford, a visiting fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The US hopes to increase its influence and leverage with rebel forces that include Syrian Kurdish fighters aligned with Arab Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. Together, the two groups have shown promise retaking some villages from the Islamic State along the Syrian-Turkish border, notes Nicholas Heras, a research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

The Kurdish and FSA forces have formed a joint operations center for war planning and have proved they can form an effective multiethnic front, now known in policy circles as the Kobane model, since the FSA assisted the Kurds in defending Kobane, Syria, from the Islamic State in 2014. …

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