The Cable

Pentagon: No, We Don’t Actually Have U.S. Troops Fighting in Syria

It was a tough day on Capitol Hill for the head is the U.S. Central Command

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 16:  Gen. Lloyd Austin III (L), commander of U.S. Central Command, greets Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) before a hearing about the ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. Austin said that slow progress was still being made against ISIL but there have been setbacks, including the ambush of U.S.-trained fighters in Syria and the buildup of Russian forces in the country.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 16: Gen. Lloyd Austin III (L), commander of U.S. Central Command, greets Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) before a hearing about the ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. Austin said that slow progress was still being made against ISIL but there have been setbacks, including the ambush of U.S.-trained fighters in Syria and the buildup of Russian forces in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It was a tough day on Capitol Hill for Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command. First, he was forced to admit that the $500 million Pentagon plan to train 5,400 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State has lost all but five of its fighters over the last two months. Then his staff was compelled to issue a press release correcting comments that implied elite American troops were fighting in Syria.

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin made it sound like Navy Seals and other American Special Operations forces were on the ground in northern Syria to fight the Islamic State alongside a Kurdish militia.

The comment came as Austin struggled to persuade skeptical lawmakers that the flailing effort to train the Syrians wasn’t the only game in town.

“What our special operations forces have done in northern Syria is they didn’t wait for the New Syrian Force program or train and equip program to fully develop,” Austin said, referring to the U.S.-trained Syrian rebels. “At the very onset, they began to engage elements like the [Kurdish] YPG and enable those elements, and they are making a difference on the battlefield.”

It was a dramatic moment in the hearing: the Obama administration has consistently said there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria, and now the top U.S. commander for the Mideast appeared to be saying that there were.

About three hours later, an email appeared in journalists’ inboxes, offering a “Clarification for the Record.”

Centcom said that Gen. Austin was actually referring to the “coordinating relationship” that U.S. Special Operators have with Syrian Kurdish forces. Translated from Pentagon-ese, that means there are some communications and planning links between the U.S. and the Kurds, but American forces aren’t on the ground planning missions or taking part in combat.

“Coordination and liaising by U.S. forces is conducted outside of Syria at the Coalition’s Joint Operation Center in northern Iraq,” the statement said. “There are no U.S. military forces on the ground in Syria, nor have we conducted any U.S. military training of indigenous Syrian forces in Syria.”

Earlier in the hearing, Austin listened as Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) ripped his assessment that the Islamic State’s “overall capability has been disrupted,” and the U.S. air campaign over the past 14 months has been “extraordinarily effective” against the jihadists. McCain also pounced on Austin’s comment that “there hadn’t been any dramatic gains on either side” in recent months, despite the cities of Ramadi and Palmyra falling to the Islamic State since the spring.

“I’ve never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert” studying the war, McCain said. In Austin’s defense, he was simply using the same language that his boss, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, used just last week, when he told reporters in Berlin that the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is “tactically stalemated,” with no “dramatic gains on either side.”

The Islamic State isn’t the only headache vexing Austin and his Centcom staff. A series of leaks from military intelligence analysts and those attached to Centcom from the Defense Intelligence Agency have charged that military leaders are distorting their work to make it look like the war is going better than it actually is. The Defense Department Inspector General has opened an investigation.

 

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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