What if the U.S. Invaded Syria and Nobody Noticed? The media should be covering this more

U.S. forces in Iraq, March 7

While everyone was paying attention to the latest crazy Trump story, United States Marines deployed to Syria.

Did you hear about that? If you didn’t, it’s not your fault. The news has been all Trump all the time.

  • He can read a speech!
  • He accused the former president of illegal wiretaps with no evidence!
  • Travel ban 2.0!
  • His Attorney General falsely denied contact with the Russians despite not being asked about it!
  • He pretended not to know his first National Security Adviser did work for Turkey!

But constant ridiculousness is the new normal, and it’s going to be that way for a while. The media needs adjust so it can do its job, drawing attention to important events. Not Trump said, not Trump tweeted, but thing happened.

On March 9, hundreds of Marines arrived in Syria to operate heavy artillery in support of local forces assaulting ISIS’ capital of Raqqa.

At some level, this isn’t a big deal. The Marines will fire from distance, which means they won’t be advancing into prepared defenses, booby traps, or ambushes. The risk they’ll sustain casualties is low.

And American forces were already there. Not these Marines, but others, performing a similar role in Iraq, helping the attack on Mosul. By the end of 2016, the mission Barack Obama sold with “no boots on the ground” involved about 5,000 American ground troops. Most advise Iraqi forces or guide U.S. airstrikes. But advising sometimes requires embedding with combat forces, and they’ve sustained casualties.

Source: United States Department of Defense

With the deployment to Syria, the American ground force engaging ISIS is now closer to 6,000. It’s part of the same fight, and they’re doing something Marines were already doing, just in a different location. It’s not a dramatic change.

But it’s not an insignificant change either, and we should be paying attention.

Many Americans fighting in Iraq and Syria are Special Operations Forces, which fall into a gray area between regular troops and clandestine operatives. Under the 1973 War Powers Act, which is still in force, military deployments require congressional authorization after 90 days. CIA operations do not.

A few days ago, the United States also deployed 100 Army Rangers to Manbij, a small Syrian city about 50 miles northeast of Aleppo and 25 miles south of the Turkish border. It’s more overt than most Special Operations missions, because their goal is to get between Syria (and their Russian backers), Turkey, and the American-supported force attacking Raqqa further east.

For better or worse, the United States has given the executive complete discretion about deploying Special Operations Forces. But the Marines are a branch of the regular military.

Additionally, while some Marines already operate in Iraq, the Iraqi government gave them permission. The Syrian government has not. Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, flush from his victory over non-ISIS rebels in Aleppo, called the American forces “invaders.”

The deployment is an escalation, another in a long line of escalations following the first deployments in mid-2014. The Obama administration claimed legal authority under the post-9/11 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF), because it applies to the people responsible for the September 11th attacks and “associated forces,” which arguably includes ISIS.

The Trump administration presumably claims the same authority. I have to say “presumably” because they haven’t discussed it with the American people.

Placing the current anti-ISIS campaign under the 2001 AUMF is a stretch. But Congress abdicated responsibility, refusing to pass new authorization. If they vote for a new AUMF and things go bad, it would be a political liability, like the vote to invade Iraq. But if they authorize it and it goes well, the president will get the credit, not individual members of Congress.

The result is repeated escalations without clear legal authority. Given the thousands of Americans already deployed in Iraq and Syria, the public probably does not have a problem adding 400 Marines and 100 Army Rangers per se. But polling shows Americans split on sending ground troops — which is why Obama repeatedly promised not to put boots on the ground.

Source: CNN/ORC

Those numbers are from late 2015, and they’re the most recent I could find (another indication Trump and the election sucked up all attention, to the detriment of important issues). Approval increased after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, but it’s unclear if it’s still above 50%.

Either way, it’s safe to assume the public has mixed feelings about sending ground troops to Syria, with many wary of further escalations. At the very least, Congress and the media need to lead a public discussion about what we’re willing to commit to this fight.

The Strategy Problem

Sending the Marines makes sense from a military perspective. Raqqa and Mosul are ISIS’ two main cities. Without them, its claim to an Islamic State collapses. American-backed Iraqi forces have already captured eastern Mosul and are currently assaulting the ISIS-held western part. However, the local forces set to attack Raqqa — a combination of Syrian Kurds and Arabs — are less capable than the Iraqi Armed Forces. To take the city, they’ll need American help.

But taking Raqqa is only the first step. As I previously wrote, the problem is holding it.

Support from local Sunni Arabs helps explain why ISIS successfully took so much territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Both Assad and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki governed as Shia sectarians. (Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and both governments are friendly with Iran). The Sunni Arabs situated between Damascus and Baghdad felt oppressed, and many accepted ISIS — which adheres to a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam — as a less bad alternative.

If the post-ISIS government in Raqqa lacks popular support, it will foment another Sunni Arab insurgency. Someone has to hold the territory, and do it in a way that provides security without alienating the people.

There’s no indication Syrian Sunni Arabs have the capacity to control the city. And if the Kurds try to do it, Turkey might attack.

Assad believes the territory is rightfully his, and will probably try to take it. If he ends up controlling Raqqa, he’ll oppress local Sunnis, especially since he holds Syria’s Sunni majority responsible for the country’s civil war. Should Assad’s forces advance, would the Americans get in their way? That might require fighting the Syrian military, and risks war with Russia.

Alternatively, if the United States can manage this diplomatically, and keep Syria, Russia, and Turkey out of it, there won’t be anyone with the capacity to provide post-ISIS security. The U.S. would have to assist local forces, and train them so they can eventually handle it themselves.

That sounds an awful lot like the occupation of Iraq. The scale would be smaller, but it would still take a long commitment. American forces would sustain casualties, and the effort could still fail.

While the American people may be okay with this latest escalation, and don’t seem to mind the legal issues of doing so under a stretched 2001 AUMF, they probably oppose a long occupation.

This latest escalation could easily lead to another. And another. Vietnam began with advisers and repeatedly escalated, and while I doubt the fight against ISIS ends up anywhere near that big a commitment, the public should still be talking about it. President Trump has not discussed his intentions in Syria with the American people, and the media should be demanding answers.

Instead, everyone’s fixated on So You Think You Can President, the world’s biggest reality show, while the country heads down an uncertain path, with no end in sight.

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