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Research Report

Partner Operations in Syria: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward

Aaron Stein
Copyright Date: Jul. 1, 2017
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 29
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 2-4)

    In eastern Syria, US special operations forces (SOF) are providing advice and assistance to a local, indigenous partner ground combat force. Syrian militiamen compose the ground combat component of an American-led international coalition seeking to eliminate the presence in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): the terrorist organizational offspring of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The American military has refused to describe the campaign against ISIS as unconventional warfare, which involves “operations and activities … conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or...

  2. (pp. 5-6)

    At the outset of the October 2015 deployment,⁸ the small contingent of US special operations forces in Syria were tasked with identifying local forces to fight ISIS, while simultaneously pursuing counterinsurgent, counterterror, and hostage rescue activities. From the outset of the deployment, the campaign focused on counterterrorism⁹ and, through the adoption of the term Train and Equip, ruled out regime change as a goal of US military action.10 This military campaign is separate from a covert US program under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that is designed to provide lethal assistance to Arab-majority opposition groups present in...

  3. (pp. 7-9)

    In June 2014, ISIS overwhelmed Iraqi security forces in Mosul and took the city with ease.23 The dramatic victory prompted President Obama to direct US Central Command (CENTCOM) to begin military operations against ISIS.24 The campaign’s rapid start posed early problems for US Army Central, and imposed troop caps slowed the early efforts to fully staff the Joint Task Force in charge of the campaign.25 The air and group campaigns initially focused on Iraq, with ground forces focused on rebuilding the Iraqi security forces.

    Attention expanded to Syria, however, as ISIS began to move some of the equipment it had...

  4. (pp. 10-15)

    The United States’ Turkey-based Train and Equip program stems from this same debate: How do you cut ISIS off from the border without a Turkish ground force or a militia that would violate Turkey’s stated red line? The T&E program fell under the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Syria (CJSOTFS)47 in support of CJTF-OIR, and had to navigate host-country sensitivities.48 For example, Ankara’s preferred approach was to directly arm groups in the Manbij pocket with minimal training, according to Turkish officials;49 but this proposal apparently ran afoul of the legal authorities to train and equip the vetted opposition. Under CJSOTF-S,...

  5. (pp. 16-17)

    A period of uncertainty for the Turkish military in Syria followed the fall of al-Bab. To support combat operations, the Turkish military has built a large base near Dabiq, as well as a series of small forward-operating bases near the front lines with the regime east of al-Bab.95 In addition, Turkey operates a training base near Soylu for individuals to join the brigades supporting Euphrates Shield or to serve as police officers in Turkish-controlled territory.96 The units were also intended to spearhead the operation to take Manbij.

    After the consolidation of the front lines around al-Bab, militia forces allied with...

  6. (pp. 18-19)

    The Turkish government has made clear its intention to take cross-border military action against the PKK. Concurrently, the Turkish military remains engaged in a low-level counterinsurgency in southeastern Turkey against Turkey-based PKK networks and members.110 Turkey trained upwards of three thousand militants as part of its initial effort for Operation Euphrates Shield, and subsequently as the potential force to take Raqqa.111 This cadre of recruits reportedly received training in cross-border assaults, which has led to speculation that Turkey could use it to spearhead an invasion of SDF-held Tel Abyad or Kurdish-controlled Tel Rifaat in northern Aleppo. This report is focused...

  7. (pp. 20-22)

    The battle for Raqqa began in June 2017, after months of deliberations—spanning two administrations—about how to manage Turkey. Central to this debate are selfimposed restrictions related to the political costs of dramatically increasing the number of US forces in Syria, and broader US government concerns about implementing a policy that would require a longterm commitment to rebuild Syria’s institutions. The military’s hesitance to deeply commit itself to postconflict operations is understandable. This phase in both Iraq and Afghanistan has bogged down the US military in protracted and costly low-intensity counter-insurgency121 and nation-building efforts. The outcome has been detrimental...

  8. (pp. 23-23)

    The outcome of the battle for Raqqa is not in doubt. The United States has escalation dominance over ISIS, with the means to increase its own involvement in the fight should the SDF become bogged down. The fundamental antagonism, however, between the US war effort and Turkey will continue even after Raqqa falls, when the debate about post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction becomes more acute. The United States may find that the fall of Raqqa will not decrease its reliance on a controversial partner force or remove the need for a sustained US presence in the area.

    ISIS and its predecessors...