U.S. Special Operations Forces’ Changing Mission in the Middle East

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Despite former President Barack Obama’s efforts to cut U.S. military commitments in the Middle East, events quickly drew his Administration back into the region. Civil war in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and, particularly, ISIS’s 2014 expansion into Iraq combined to keep Washington militarily involved the region.

However, the nature of this involvement has changed significantly. Rather than commit regular troops, the U.S. has increasingly relied on elite special operations forces (SOF) to accomplish its goals. In Syria alone, SOF deployments have grown steadily from roughly 300 in early 2016 to over 700 today, and reports suggest further increases as the Trump Administration ramps up its anti-ISIS strategy.

Special operations forces offer policymakers flexible, effective, and discreet ways to deal with the region’s complex conflicts, but many worry that overreliance on SOF could undermine readiness. How has the role and tempo of operations for SOF in the Middle East changed and what measures, if any, will President Donald Trump take to relieve some of the stress placed on U.S. special operations forces deployed to the region?

At any given time, there are roughly 8,000 SOF soldiers stationed in over 80 countries and, according to General Raymond Thomas, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the role these forces are asked to play is quickly evolving. Thomas told the House Armed Services Committee last week that SOF are no longer a “mere ‘break-glass-in-case-of-war’ force, we are now proactively engaged across the battle space.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, where SOF are at the cutting edge of an anti-ISIS strategy that relies heavily on training, supporting, fielding, and coordinating local allied forces. This focus on “building partner capacity” to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions is well within SOF abilities, and has been a linchpin of U.S. national security strategy since 9/11. However, ISIS’s rise in Iraq and Syria, combined with deep political resistance to committing U.S. conventional ground forces to the conflict, has concentrated the efforts of the anti-ISIS coalition on training and supporting effective local partners, such as state-level armed forces or allied insurgents.

Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, points to the use by General Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), of the Special Forces phrase “by, with, and through” as good way to think about this new focus; in essence, U.S. SOF are becoming more deeply embedded with local allies to defeat ISIS by, with, and through these local partners. Because the counter-ISIS coalition is so diverse –from conventional armed forces in Iraq to Sunni Arab rebels and Kurdish militia in Syria – the demand for SOF has skyrocketed, and SOF soldiers are being pushed into expansive new roles that include not only training and advising local partners, but also coordinating U.S. and coalition fire support, and managing relations between coalition partners.

“If they succeed in ousting ISIS from Mosul and Raqqa in the coming months,” says Robinson, “this new way of combining forces and using SOF to direct a ground war could become a model for conducting low- to mid-level combat.” 

However, this model also places a heavy strain on special operations forces. First, increasing demand for these forces by CENTCOM in the Middle East will likely increase the tempo of deployments to the region, which would be stressful for SOF members and their families and could sap resources from other geographic combatant commands. According to General Russell Howard, former commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, this happened during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when “nearly 80 percent of the [special operations] force was deployed in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region and Afghanistan.”

Nowhere near that proportion is concentrated in the region now, but the number and diversity of missions that SOF deployed to the Middle East are asked to complete also presents what Howard calls “a huge training challenge.” In the past, Special Forces soldiers could generally focus more finely on one type of mission such as foreign internal defense, which is aimed at training foreign militaries. But today, says Howard, those soldiers might be expected to engage in “unconventional warfare [assisting insurgents against a state], counterterrorism, foreign internal defense, or counterinsurgency…all in the same day.”

Fortunately, this is a challenge that SOF are flexible enough to overcome, and that is why they have become the force of choice for this kind of warfare. However, this reliance has caused some military planners to worry that, as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Theresa Whelan recently testified to Congress, “we have had to eat our young … [and] mortgaged the future in order to facilitate current operations.”

There are signs that the Trump Administration is beginning to shift some of the SOF mission in the Middle East to conventional troops. The White House has stopped disclosing troop deployments, but in March, the Pentagon sent roughly 400 Marines to Syria and 300 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division to Mosul, as well as new artillery and air fire support assets. Nevertheless, unless the Administration decides to either commit a large number of conventional troops or abandon the recent gains made against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, SOF will continue to be the indispensable force for Trump’s military goals in the region.

Fritz Lodge is a Middle East and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.

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