What 100,000 U.S. boots on the ground get you in Syria
Speaking in Turkey after the terrible Paris murders of last Friday, President Barack Obama recently opposed any fundamental change in U.S. strategy towards Syria — the hotbed and home headquarters of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and apparently a key node in the planning and preparation of the attack. He asked listeners to imagine what it would really accomplish to send, hypothetically, 50,000 U.S. troops to Syria to address the problem at its source–and further mused about whether, if we did so, we would also need to send large forces to any other country from which a future terrorist attack might emanate, like Yemen.
Obama was setting up a bit of a straw man because few politicians or scholars advocate a major invasion of Syria by American-led foreign forces. That said, it is interesting to think through the president’s ideas a bit more. What could we accomplish with different force packages? Today, the United States is sending up to 50 special operators to safer parts of Syria; it may have dozens of special operations forces and CIA personnel already working in or near Syria at present, and has perhaps 1,000 or more personnel contributing to aerial operations over Syria out of bases in Turkey and beyond. With that as the baseline, what else could we do — if we chose to?
Force Package One
This was Obama’s figure. It is perhaps roughly the size of an invasion force that would be adequate to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to take Islamic State’s capital city of Raqqa out of that group’s hand, perhaps sequentially.
This would be a potent invasion force, certainly far stronger than anything found among Syria’s various fighting forces today. We used more than 100,000 troops to invade Iraq — but that was a larger country with a much larger military — back in 2003. Moreover, of those 100,000 troops, only a fraction were actually crucial in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; others were still maneuvering or preparing when Baghdad fell. So, even though he meant it as a notional or illustrative example, Mr. Obama’s figure of 50,000 is probably not an unfair estimate of what an invasion might require.
Force Package Two
Even if 50,000 troops could allow us to destroy our enemies’ holds on power, it would likely NOT be enough to begin to stabilize the country. We found out the hard way in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently Libya, that getting rid of bad guys is sometimes easier than replacing them with anything better that can hold onto power and restore some semblance of normal, stable life.
The estimate of 100,000 troops accounts for the fact that, while we had 170,000 American GIs and a total of some 200,000 foreign troops in Iraq when the surge succeeded in 2007/2008, Syria is only about 3/4 as populous as Iraq. So a somewhat more modest force would likely be adequate. Still, such a force presupposes some additional foreign help from our allies as well as possibly Russia — and it would need to stay in place for years, as in Iraq, in all likelihood.
Force Package Three
A relatively modest force of Americans would, however, be adequate to take the war effort to a much greater level today. This would entail widespread use of Special Forces and trainers, on the ground in relatively safer parts of Syria (starting with Kurdish areas in the north and regions next to Jordan in the south), to accelerate the growth of moderate Syrian opposition forces. The increase could also allow the United States and partners to impose a variant of a no-fly zone on the Syrian air force — not necessarily maintaining constant patrols (as we did in Iraq in the 1990s during the no-fly zone operations there), but retaliating at a time and place and fashion of our choosing against any Syrian (but not Russian) planes that bombed civilian populations going forward. This approach could gradually shift battlefield balances and dynamics — perhaps over the next year, if things went well — while also allowing us to deliver humanitarian relief in an increasingly large fraction of the country.
Force Package Four
This is my rough estimate of what a U.S. contribution to an international peacekeeping force would entail once there is a peace deal to enforce. It assumes a total international presence approaching 100,000. It would not be an easy mission, and Syria is not ripe for such a peace deal or peacekeeping force now. I am assuming a “Bosnia model” — a confederation of largely autonomous zones, based largely on ethnicity and religion, in such a deal. It might follow the operation outlined in package three mentioned above.
These various concepts are not mutually exclusive. To my mind, some combination of the last two, in sequence, would be the most promising. The main point is that we are not in an either/or situation. There are several options to analyze and consider between the extremes of doing nothing and launching yet another big U.S.-led war in the Middle East.