What 100,000 U.S. boots on the ground get you in Syria

November 19, 2015
U.S. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles drive through Camp Adder before departing what is now known as Imam Ali Base near Nasiriyah, Iraq  December 16, 2011. The last convoy of U.S. soldiers pulled out of Iraq on Sunday, ending their withdrawal after nearly nine years of war and military intervention that cost almost 4,500 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.   Picture taken December 16, 2011.  REUTERS/Mario Tama/Pool   (IRAQ - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR2VDWY

U.S. Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles drive through Camp Adder before departing what is now known as Imam Ali Base near Nasiriyah, Iraq December 16, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Tama/Pool

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

50,000 troops

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

100,000 troops

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

5,000 troops

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

25,000 troops

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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Option 4 looks promising if we engage our NATO partners and Middle Eastern allies.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Even with a million troops we will not stabilize the situation. The problem is America.


Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

The Russians got there first so none of these packages will work without direct engagement with them. The best package is the 5 Rambo’s the US managed to train at price of 100 mil each.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Force Package Twenty Five
Eliminate every radical mosque preaching war in the world, starting with the Saudis. HA HA HA ha heh — no, lets continue to let the tail wag the dog until we realize that Islam declared war on non believers when the Koran was written.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

Been there done that. That’s how ISIS formed. The brilliant republican plan to de-stabilize the power structures of the Middle East. “Shock and Awe.”

4 trillion dollars. 4,400 U.S. Soldiers killed…. to give ISIS a place to form.

Republicans lack any credibility on foreign policy. They are disastrously ignorant and naive.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

How about this. Go in and get out. Keep the force logical for logistics. Forget about taking out Assad, focus on the Daesh. Send in Airborne Infantry and Special Forces.
1. Create a No Fly Zone for 2 Weeks for all Aircraft besides US Aircraft.
2.Push in from Iraq with an Airborne blitz, varying from Air Assault to parachutes.
3. Push hard from Iraq to Raqqa, taking out towns one by one.
4. Demolish their government begin taking other towns.
5. Before the 2 weeks is up, ensure all objectives are accomplished and begin the long march back into friendly Iraqi Territory.
6. Leave.

While this is happening, Kurdish and Iraqi forces are taking territory of their own, and come in and clean up the pigs after us. Minimal Casualties, Minimal time, and 0 commitment. If they can not hold their own after that, I just don’t know.

Posted by Aaka | Report as abusive

So what did you not like my last comment?

Posted by zen2u | Report as abusive

What about total occupation? Worked out okay for Germany, Japan, and Korea.

Posted by EdEddEddy | Report as abusive

The problem is inbreeding. Can’t undo inbreeding.

Posted by Sherpa1 | Report as abusive


Nobody cares, dude.

Posted by Sherpa1 | Report as abusive

Neocon hack that shouldn’t be getting airtime.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Are you on crack? I live in the United Arab Emirates and work as a teacher with Arab children in grades 6 and 7. These kids are tougher than nails, and wilder than a wolf caught in a trap. Until you have seen how they are raised firsthand, you have no idea. I should be freelancing for the state department…200,000 troops could not hold Syria since they don’t want to be held. The real solution is to stand our ground without fear and demarcate a boarder around them where they do not cross, to take in their refugees, and take occasional shots at their military targets with Cruise missiles. Add to that a no fly zone, and just put up with the MF’s until their own populace rises up against ISIS and Assad.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Option 4 is the most logical. Options 1 through 3 fail to take into account the ‘behind the scenes’ happenings with Russia. Russia will not allow us to directly confront Assad.

Posted by GuavaAustin | Report as abusive

Did the Syrian government send fighters to intervene in OUR Civil War? Maybe the writer can show us some photos of Syrian brigades in Virginia in 1864. Looking forward to seeing those.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

June 3rd 2014 – remember Syria? Yes they held a general election under tight international observation. A clean result, al Assad scored 10.3 million out of an eligible electorate of 16.1 million.

Why invade another country who have not and do not want to harm USA. UK or EU?

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

EdEddy asks: “What about total occupation? Worked out okay for Germany, Japan, and Korea.”

Those were not total occupations. We set up bases there and became allies. We did not take over their governments and affairs.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

All the republican armchair captains should quit crying, put on some boots, and fly their own chubby selves to Syria. You guys jump in there. Good luck.

We’ll watch after your women :)

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive