Paris Attack Sparks Debate Over Special Operations Forces in Syria

By Allyson Versprille

French police gathering evidence at the Bataclan theatre.

Following a horrific terrorist attack in Paris led by the Islamic State that left 129 dead, analysts and former government officials Nov. 16 called for intensified military action in Syria including a potential increase in special operations forces.

Paula Dobriansky, a foreign policy expert who served as the under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs from 2001 to 2009 said, "unequivocally … we should be upping that number of our presence [of special operations forces] on the ground."

But more importantly, "it's absolutely essential to have a strategy — a strategy in defeating ISIS, a strategy dealing with the issue of Syria, but also … a strategy for dealing with the Middle East at large. It is crucial not to have a reactive, ad hoc approach," she said at a panel discussion during a Center for Strategic and International Security conference in Washington, D.C.

Dobriansky said there are several components that would need to be addressed in order to build a clearer strategy in the Middle East, and military strength is one. There are currently about 50 U.S. special operations forces in Syria, and the government should engage with the military and hear specific recommendations for increasing that number, she said.

Derek Chollet, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and counselor and senior advisor for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund, argued that the current administration has a strategy for the Middle East but the real question is the intensity at which various parts of the strategy are pursued. Is there is a balance between what the United States is doing militarily and non-militarily? He also asked whether the United States is taking full advantage of its allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

"On the military side, I think this administration has been clear that we can look and we should look at intensifying our military activity — whether it's our direct U.S. action in airstrikes … whether it's our role on the ground and whether we should add to the 50 or so special operators that are on the ground in Syria," Chollet said. However, "that will entail some risk," he warned.

In terms of whether the United States should send a large-scale ground army outside of special operations forces into Syria to fight the Islamic State, Chollet said that would be a mistake. He agreed with the parting words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said that anyone who advocates such an action should "have his head examined."

Dobriansky agreed. "I think that we should use the kind of military instruments … that are the most effective — that are targeted. I think that should also be combined with joining forces with Peshmerga with the Iraqi Security Forces, with the others" who could add to U.S. force and effort.

These comments came just a few hours after President Barack Obama spoke at the G20 Summit in Turkey where he rebuffed suggestions that more U.S. ground troops should be sent into the region, calling that a "mistake." He explained that a large deployment of ground forces would not work unless the United States was committed to a permanent occupying force in the region.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the U.S. military in the past has been called upon to step up in larger efforts that affect security because of the shear size and strength of its forces.

"The Defense Department has to wrestle with the conclusion that [it is] going to be asked to play a role in defeating the ideology, not just the intelligence support and of course the actual degrading and defeating if that's the ultimate goal," she said. There's also a capacity challenge as U.S. special operations forces are spread thin challenging several terrorist groups including the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab.

"It's not going to be enough to just rely on the special operations forces," she said. They rely on the general military for resupply, sustainment and logistics, she said. To add to the capacity challenge "the Defense Department here is struggling with an Army that's shrinking pretty dramatically relative to its post-9/11 buildup."

In addition to terror groups in the Middle East, a broader discussion needs to take place about the balancing of U.S. troops across several global theaters — including Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, Eaglen said. 

Pentagon officials have stated that the Islamic State is the most immediate threat, but Russia is the most dangerous, she added. "You have to balance terrorism and its various players and actors with the potential return of near-peer, near-state competitors."

Topics: Defense Department, International

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