Hundreds of U.S. Special Forces troops are heading overseas to train Syrian rebels to battle the Islamic State, but White House dithering and bureaucratic confusion could make it hard for them to pull it off.
- By Seán D. NaylorSeán D. Naylor is the intelligence and counterterrorism senior staff writer for Foreign Policy. He previously spent 23 years at Army Times, where his principal beat was special operations forces. He is the author of Not A Good Day To Die – The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda and the forthcoming Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.
The Special Forces group that ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 is preparing to deploy to Jordan to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, but many of the U.S. military’s most elite warriors have a gnawing fear that those efforts may be too little, too late.
Four years after the start of the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group is getting ready to establish a multinational special operations task force in Jordan to train and equip Syrian rebel forces that the United States deems “moderate” — which means allied with neither the Islamic State nor al Qaeda’s local affiliate, al-Nusra Front.
But daunting challenges lie ahead for 5th Group. They include finding and vetting enough moderate rebels to make a difference on the battlefield; potential friction with the CIA, which has its own rebel training program going on in Jordan; the Obama administration’s refusal to let special operations forces fight alongside the rebel forces they have trained; and a confusing chain of command that none of the relevant American military headquarters seem willing or able to explain.
To complicate matters further, the general in charge of the training mission in Jordan is considered one of the special operations community’s most capable senior officers, but as things stand he is scheduled to rotate out of the country just as the training effort gets underway.
The stakes are enormously high for Washington and its allies. The Obama administration has publicly vowed to keep U.S. forces out of the line of fire in the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, in part to guard against the prospect of more American fatalities in a conflict the U.S. public had overwhelmingly turned against in recent years. The White House is instead hoping that members of some of the military’s most secretive and elite units can rebuild the shattered Iraqi army and stand up a force of tribal militias willing to fight the Islamic State, while simultaneously helping to train and equip a new rebel force in Syria. Failure in either location is likely to embolden the United States’ enemies in the region — Iran, the Assad regime, the Islamic State, and al-Nusra Front — and seriously damage American prestige.
The ban on Special Forces trainers entering Syria is just one of a number of Obama policy directives hampering the special operations training effort — and, with it, the success of the overall U.S. mission against the Islamic State, according to special operations officers. Another is a more general pressure to minimize the U.S. footprint on the ground in Jordan and Iraq. The military is still waiting for the formal authorization to deploy “large formations” of special operations forces, said a special operations lieutenant colonel. “It all goes back to the national policy, and there’s a lot of frustration with that,” he said.
There is also a real risk that the Special Forces soldiers will find themselves in competition with the CIA for the same dwindling band of moderate rebels. The CIA is already training Syrian rebels in Jordan, but that effort is limited by the relatively small number of operatives that Langley can devote to the effort. Hence the introduction of the 5th Special Forces Group, which can train several times the number of guerrillas as the CIA can. “This is an industrial-size problem,” said a special operations officer who has been tracking the issue from Washington. “You need an industrial-size solution.”
The job of mediating between the CIA and the elite military forces will fall to Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, a highly regarded Special Forces officer who runs both the U.S. Central Command’s special operations command and an “interagency” task force that will oversee the training efforts in Jordan. “The choice of title for Nagata’s organization is not accidental,” said the special operations officer in Washington, in reference to the word “interagency.” “[His job] is to try and keep the line [between the CIA and the special operations forces] clearly established and try to keep everybody on the proper side of that line.”
On the ground, the training mission itself will be run by Col. John Brennan, 5th Group’s commander, who previously led a squadron in the Army’s famed Delta Force. Brennan will command a combined joint special operations task force in Jordan during the next few months, with the mission of training Syrian rebels. The word “combined” refers to the participation of other countries; the military is keen to involve as many local partners as possible. “If we turn this into Fort Bragg East we’re not doing the [Jordanian] monarch any favors,” said the special operations officer in Washington. “We want an Arab face on this thing.”
Finding and vetting moderate rebels will be the task force’s first major challenge, and one that will likely be left to U.S. allies, in particular the Jordanians and Saudis, said the special operations officer in Washington. However, there are doubts as to whether enough rebels and would-be rebels who meet U.S. criteria remain in Syria. “It’s a commonly held position here that when you say ‘moderate opposition,’ those guys were killed off two years ago,” said the special operations officer in Washington.
Even if enough Syrians can be recruited, it will take years for the training pipeline to produce the numbers required to change the situation on the ground in Syria. “They’re talking like two, three years for this training effort to produce anything, and they were struggling just to get it off the ground,” said a senior special operations officer with close knowledge of U.S. policy deliberations on Iraq and Syria.
Other than the need to keep as much of an Arab face as possible on the training effort, the prospect of an indefinite, but certainly multiyear, mission is another factor driving the size of the American commitment in Jordan down. “This is going to be a long-term effort and we’re going to have to pace ourselves to a degree,” said the special operations lieutenant colonel. In practice, this means that 5th Group will rarely have more than 200 Special Forces soldiers in the country at a time, a force theoretically capable of training roughly 7,000 guerrillas at one time. But the real numbers are likely to be much lower. “If they could put out 5,000 guys every 90 days that would be an extraordinary success,” said the senior special operations officer familiar with policy deliberations on Iraq and Syria. “But I don’t think the numbers will be anything like that.”
The length of time required to turn those guerrillas into an effective fighting force depends on several variables, including their likely mission and whether or not they are being trained to integrate the use of crew-served weapons like mortars and antitank rockets into their maneuvers. “If you’re taking guys off the street and trying to form them into cohesive units, anything less than 90 days, I think you’re putting yourself at risk,” the senior special operations officer said. “They’re not going to withstand first contact [with the enemy].”
The best hope for achieving success through the Special Forces effort would be to follow the model that worked so well for 5th Group in Afghanistan in late 2001, according to special operations officers. This would entail allowing the A-teams to accompany their charges into battle in an offensive campaign supported by U.S. and allied air power and intelligence. The problem is that the Obama administration has ruled out letting Special Forces teams enter Syria — a policy decision that has frustrated many in the special operations community, who say it’s vital for there to be Special Forces advisors on the front lines but doubt the Obama administration would ever authorize it. “If that’s the way it works best, I can almost guarantee you that’s not the way the administration is going to let us proceed,” said the officer tracking things from Washington.
Another problem is a bureaucratic one: The military has a baffling array of special operations and conventional headquarters that are already established or are mooted to soon deploy to the region. Also in Jordan is a U.S.-led multinational effort named Operation Gallant Phoenix, aimed at tracking the foreign fighter flow into Iraq and Syria. Begun as an initiative under Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which controls the military’s most elite special operations units, and JSOC’s higher administrative headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, it has expanded to include participation by U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command, said the senior special operations officer. Although sometimes referred to as the “foreign fighter task force,” Gallant Phoenix doesn’t have troops of its own to send out on raids or direct assaults and instead passes on the information it receives to allied countries. With the Islamic State’s foreign fighter contingent now estimated by the United States to exceed 20,000, it makes more sense to address the problem through allied governments and law enforcement, said a retired special operations officer with intimate knowledge of ongoing operations. “It’s too big a problem to kill with any kind of kinetics,” he said.
Joint Special Operations Command also has a small military contingent headquartered in Iraqi Kurdistan. Called Task Force 27, it is built around Delta Force — which has long enjoyed close relations with Kurdish security and intelligence forces — and is led by the Delta commander, a colonel. Task Force 27’s focus is on targeting the so-called high-value individuals who comprise the Islamic State leadership. Most of the task force’s effort has been devoted to Syria, but it has also paid attention to potential targets in the Mosul area of Iraq. However, other than at least one hostage rescue attempt, Task Force 27 has conducted no direct action missions against Islamic State targets, several special operations sources said. “If the time comes when the president makes a decision, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to capture [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi’ … they might be poised to do that, but to my knowledge, nobody’s given them a green light to do that,” the senior special operations officer said.
In addition to the Delta elements in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is also a three- to four-man Delta cell at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, that manages intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights launched from Incirlik air base, the senior special operations officer said. The United States had been providing that sort of support along the Turkish border to the Turkish government for several years. When the Islamic State kidnapped almost 50 employees of the Turkish Consulate and 30 Turkish truck drivers in Mosul in June 2014, the Turkish government gave the United States permission to send flights south across the border to try to locate the hostages, the senior officer said.
One similarity between the missions in Iraq and in Syria is that in both cases, the United States is late to the game. As the Islamic State expanded its control over northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, the United States did little. Only when the group overran Mosul in June did the U.S. government stir to action, according to the special operations officer in Washington. “If not for the catalyst of our embassy potentially falling, we’d probably be doing nothing,” he said.
The military dispatched a crisis response force in anticipation of having to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. That force included 5th Group’s combatant commander’s in-extremis force, a reinforced Special Forces company specially trained for counterterrorism missions, as well as Navy SEALs and Air Force special operations elements, said the special operations officer in Washington. That force remained in Iraq, and transitioning the special ops contingent there to a “less ad hoc” force “has been an effort,” he said. But that new force is slowly gathering, under the command of Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, a Special Forces officer who is Nagata’s deputy in Central Command’s special operations command.
Headquartered at a base beside Baghdad International Airport, Crytzer’s command is known as Joint Special Operations Task Force – Iraq, and will likely include Navy SEALs and Marine special operations elements as well as A-teams from a Special Forces group other than 5th Group, which is expected to be consumed with the mission in Jordan. (With 3rd Group and 7th Group heavily committed to Afghanistan and Latin America, the chances are good that the additional SF teams will come from 1st or 10th Groups, said the special operations lieutenant colonel.) Also included in Crytzer’s task force are several allied special operations contingents.
But although the U.S. special operations forces in Iraq, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurdistan are all focused on the same enemy — the Islamic State — they do not share the same chain of command. “It’s not the model that they have in Afghanistan, where everybody’s under one command,” said the senior special ops officer with close knowledge of U.S. policy deliberations on Iraq and Syria. “It’s still this kind of a bifurcated command,” with different reporting chains for the secretive Joint Special Operations Command elements, sometimes known as “the national mission force,” and other special ops units like 5th Group, known as theater special operations forces.
Crytzer reports directly to Army Lieut. Gen. James Terry, which runs the U.S.-led allied war effort in both Iraq and Syria from a headquarters in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Nagata, however, reports straight to Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command. The Joint Special Operations Command force in Iraqi Kurdistan, Task Force 27, has yet another chain of command, meaning that no single special operations officer in the theater commands all the U.S. special operations forces, a situation that disturbs some in the special ops community.
“The enemy’s got unity of effort and we don’t have that. And they’ve got unity of command too,” said a recently retired colonel with close links to U.S. Special Operations Command. “How many headquarters do you fucking need?”
Muddying the waters further are rumors that Maj. Gen. Darsie Rogers, the head of U.S. Army Special Forces Command, might deploy to the Middle East with yet another new command. Rogers’s spokeswoman declined to comments.
Yet another challenge comes from the fact that Nagata, arguably the most important officer in the effort, will have to move jobs just as the unconventional warfare campaign is getting underway in earnest. By June, Nagata will have been at the helm of Central Command’s special operations component for two years, the standard tenure in that position. Because Nagata’s career has included tours in the CIA, Joint Special Operations Command, and regular Special Forces, as well as multiple jobs in Washington, some view him as uniquely qualified for the role he currently fills. His centrality is sparking talk of the military switching around the command structure so he can stay in the region longer. (The Pentagon set a precedent for this in 2006, when it gave then-JSOC commander Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal a third star and kept him in command, in order not to disrupt his task force as it eviscerated Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq group, the forerunner to the Islamic State.)
Despite the challenges, the chance to deploy to the Middle East and conduct a classic Special Forces mission has many in the community licking their lips. “There’s such a lot of anticipation about this right now … because this is a very good SF mission,” the special operations lieutenant colonel said. However, he noted pointedly, “You’ve got to be careful of wanting a mission too bad.”
Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images