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[UPDATE: The Pentagon has released the transcript of a press briefing today, addressing the SOF deployment to Syria among other things. The DOD official explained that, for now, these operators will not accompany the units they assist when those units go into the field, in contrast to current policy for at least some circumstances in Iraq. The official later explained that this was to be expected, given that the relationship with the Syrian group(s) is just beginning and has not yet ripened into the sort of trusted relationship that operators have developed with certain local forces in Iraq. In short, the ground combat mission in Syria will not, for the moment, extend as far as in Iraq. In the meantime, the comments below remain applicable as to SOF in Iraq.]
The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House has signed off on a plan for SOF units to deploy to Syria to perform a train-and-assist mission in support of unidentified local forces fighting against ISIL. How does this fit into the larger discussion over the evolving U.S. ground role?
A Geographic Extension of the Status Quo
The novelty here is geography. SOF operators in Iraq play this role already, particularly with Peshmerga.
That Status Quo Does Involve Combat
Notwithstanding that the mission is described as a "train-and-assist" mission, and notwithstanding the White House's strong desire to preserve the narrative that it ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq years ago, there is no question that these operators can participate in combat in some instances. This not only is quite foreseeable, but appears to be part-and-parcel of the evolving strategy as the White House responds to the Russian intervention by leveling up America's role (see this discussion from one week ago).
Why Not Be More Direct About that Combat Role?
It is tempting to assume the obfuscation is driven by legal concerns. A few years ago in Libya, after all, when critics asserted that the administration had violated the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution itself by using force without Congressional authorization, the response placed great weight on the fact that there were no U.S. boots on the ground engaged in sustained combat operations. But such separation-of-war-powers concerns don't actually arise here, for the administration this time asserts that not just one but two statutes--the 2001 al Qaeda AUMF and the 2002 Iraq AUMF--supply whatever domestic law authorization might be needed. So there's no need to avoid the "combat" label from that perspective.
So what explains the obfuscation? It seems to me it is the product of policy judgments, political optics, and concerns about what the next administration might do.
Consider the policy dimension first: the administration may take the view that it would be counterproductive, over the long term, to have a more visible ground combat role for U.S. forces, perhaps out of fear that such a role might further galvanize foreign fighter recruitment and otherwise feed into enemy narratives about American occupiers/puppet-masters. On that view, there might be a real difference (even if in degree rather than kind) between episodic uses of force by low-visibility SOF units and deployment of conventional, large-footprint units to engage in independent, sustained operations. On this view, aversion to the label "combat" is really just aversion to the conventional, large-footprint model.
But even if that accurately describes the administration's policy position, it seems likely that political optics matter also matter on this issue. The White House prizes the depiction of President Obama as a peacemaker who brought the troops home from Iraq, and is poised to do so again as to Afghanistan. The rise of ISIL in the former location and the resurgence of the insurgents in the latter have made it increasingly hard to sustain that narrative, however, and it may be that the administration's aversion to the "combat" label also reflects a lingering hope of preserving what remains of the "war-ender" narrative.
Finally, there is the question of how a subsequent administration (or either party) might find itself more or less hemmed in, in political terms at least, by the boundary lines that the Obama administration proves willing and unwilling to cross. Think of it this way: If the administration really believes, as a matter of policy, that a large-footprint ground presence will prove counterproductive, it of course will not authorize such a deployment. But the next administration might do so, and might find it easier to do so if it can claim that the Obama administration already crossed the "combat" Rubicon, even if on a much smaller scale. On that view, the administration might eschew the "combat" label in part simply to avoid facilitating such arguments down the road.