The first casualty resulting from President Barack Obama’s decision to send a small contingent of Special Operations forces into Syria was a civilian. Not in Syria, but in Washington. White House spokesman Josh Earnest was endeavoring to explain the decision in a briefing that quickly turned into a grueling interrogation session at the hands of a skeptical White House press corps. Earnest survived, but barely.
At issue was the deployment of “less than 50,” as he said, Special Operations forces in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria, whose mission will be… well, that was the question. Does this represent a change in U.S. policy not to put boots on the ground in the war against ISIS, or not? Is it mission creep, or something less creepy than that?
The death of Delta Force commando Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler in last Thursday’s rescue of ISIS-held hostages underlined the fact that American military personnel are being put in harm’s way, and the reporters insisted on the clearest possible definition of the expanded role of Special Ops in the war-torn region.
Earnest fought bravely and stayed on message. “The Special Operations forces will be offering some training, some advice and some assistance to moderate opposition forces that are fighting ISIL in northern Syria right now … these forces do not have a combat mission.”
To say the least, the Washington press corps was not satisfied with this response.
As one reporter posed his question: “And so, I’m trying to figure out how can we measure that point. What are soldiers in combat doing that these ‘train, advise and assist’ soldiers aren’t doing? Because it looks and smells and sounds like a combat mission. And soldiers are dying. The Pentagon has described some of these as combat…”
The question was asked again and again, albeit each time from a slightly different angle, with a slightly different spin, but with no mistaking that each time they were throwing a hardball.
Another example: “At the onset of this, I think any rational person would conclude that the impression was given to the American people that there would not be a combat mission. It now appears that there are going to be occasions from time to time where there will be a combat element to what U.S. troops are doing in Iraq and Syria. And so you’re saying that that’s not the case?”
But the president’s man gave no ground. Earnest repeated each time that they will be there in an advisory capacity, not combat boots on the ground, but advisory boots.
One important point that emerged — more from reporters’ assertions than official admission — was that the Special Ops will presumably be provided with air cover and extract capability, which threatens to draw the U.S. further into the war.
But the White House stuck to its guns — advisory guns, of course — saying that the mission had not changed; it was and still is a non-combat task to assist the local forces in ridding their lands of ISIS.
While the White House was intent on assuring the American people that involvement in the fighting would be very limited, Republicans were critical about that very point — that it’s too limited.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called it “an incremental change that will not change the conditions on the ground.”
“In the eyes of the enemy, this is weakness. In the eyes of our allies, this is unreliability. ISIL is not going to be intimidated by this move,” Graham said.
“You know, they’re all in for their agenda: the caliphate and their view of the world. President Obama is not all in when it comes to degrading and destroying ISIL and this just reinforces that.”
Graham renewed his call for a no-fly zone over Syria to address the refugee problem and to properly train rebel forces.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio went beyond a no-fly zone to advocate a safe zone where moderate rebels “can organize, train, equip and ultimately present a credible alternative to Assad for the future of Syria.”
Rubio also said that Special Ops should not just “advise and assist,” but should be embedded with local forces. “But it doesn’t involve a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iraq,” he added.
The debate over U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria today is the kind of debate that many feel should have taken place at the outset of the war in Vietnam. That, too, started out with sending small numbers of specially-trained advisors, and it gradually mushroomed into over half a million combat troops, and dozens of them being killed every week.
That is not to say that such a debate would have forestalled a large-scale military intervention in Vietnam. But at least the American people, its leaders and its soldiers would have had a better idea about what they were getting into. It would at least have mitigated charges of deception and lying about the war and its conduct, and the bitterly divided home front.
Now, as then, the dilemma is an agonizing one. All agree that the enemy is evil and ruthless and must be defeated; but how, precisely, this can be done is the question that seems not to have an answer.
But one thing is for sure: Now is the time to ask these tough questions.