On January 2, a soldier in San Diego linked to Special Forces posted on his Facebook page that he was deploying to Syria. The soldier’s Facebook page has been scrubbed, as well as almost all references to him. Still, this tantalizing piece of information startled readers, leading many to ask: does our country have troops in Syria and if so, why?
The likely presence of U.S. special forces inside Syria, a nation descending into civil war, may come as a surprise to the American public. But it’s no secret to many in Congress, where testimony before the Armed Services Committee as of last year by a top military official confirmed that the US has Special forces in over 20 Mideast countries including Syria, The Nation reported in 2010.
According to U.S. Navy Admiral Eric Olson, outdoing chief of Special Operations Command, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last year said that the U.S. had special operations troops in 20 countries in the Middle East. The Nation further reported that Colonel Tim Nye estimated in August that by the end of 2011, the U.S. would likely have special forces deployed in 120 countries. http://www.thenation.com/article/162566/secret-war-120-countries. That’s a big jump from June 2010, when the Washington Post reported special operations in 70 countries. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060304965.html.
The Facebook posting raises additional questions. Why would a special forces soldier reveal the destination for a mission online? That answer may never be known, since according to family, he lost his life overseas and his body is en route home.
As for why the U.S. might have special forces inside Syria, however, our research has found several intriguing possibilities.
Numerous foreign news accounts have recently claimed that Western special forces are operating inside Syria, suggesting potential motives that range from the U.S. offering humanitarian aid to speculation that some Western special forces may be helping armed insurgents. (Several are linked to below.)
Evacuation of Americans from Syria was announced this week by the U.S. State Department amid rising violence and instability. Syria has engaged in numerous kidnappings and brutal killings of thousands, including hostages perceived as sympathizers for rebel forces, making safe passage riskier by the day. Thus it is certainly plausible that U.S. special forces could be on the ground to assist in getting Americans safely out of Syria—and perhaps for other reasons.
Special Operations Typical Missions
Special Operations teams are used for a variety of missions and always work in small teams. They are used for recon, hostage rescue, infiltration, killing targeted terrorists (as in the Osama bin Ladin raid), forward air control in some cases, as well as a force multiplier. (See link for one of many good general books on the subject.)
The Syrian unrest started in March 2011, on the heels of the successful Arab Spring In Tunis and Egypt. As Syrians took to the streets to demand that President Bashar Al Assad step down, the regime quickly clamped down. The Syrian government used armed personnel and snipers against peaceful demonstrators. Many people were kidnapped and taken by the security forces, after which they were tortured and in many cases killed.
On June 17, two Dutch diplomats were kidnapped in Lebanon and taken across the border to Syria, where they were later released. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2011/Jun-17/Two-Dutch-diplomats-abducted-briefly-taken-to-Syria-and-released.ashx#axzz1jN5kpgqm . Although the Dutch incident did not occur in Syria proper, a pattern of harassment of Western interests soon expanded into Syria.
On July 31, the Free Syrian Army was formed. Its reported objective was to protect fleeing soldiers, and chiefly civilians, from the regime. This force is made up of former soldiers of the regime, as well as civilian volunteers. This followed the pattern that we saw in Libya, although the FSA has not officially asked for foreign help.
By October of 2011, the situation deteriorated to the point that U.S. Ambassador Ford was harassed and could not do his job. The Syrian regime claimed that “the presence of the U.S. ambassador in Hama without previous permission is obvious proof of the implication of the United States in the ongoing events, and of their attempts to increase (tensions), which damage Syria’s security and stability,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14074257 .
The Ambassador was recalled and later sent back. But he was not the only Foreign Diplomat harassed or molested. According to the Global Post, “at least 13 Western diplomats in Syria revealed in private conversations that they had suffered threats and abuse at the behest of the Assad regime, including kidnap, imprisonment, beatings and even raids on their homes.” http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/the-casbah/diplomats-under-attack-damascus .
This pattern also included later attacks in November on the Saudi, Turkish and French Consulates, according to Yedihot Ahronont, an Israeli publication which published this account: “Crowds armed with sticks and knives attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus and French and Turkish consulates in the city of Latakia on Saturday after the Arab League suspended Syria, residents said.” According to the same publication, the French denied any attacks on French interest in the city of Latakia, but Saudi Arabia did strongly condemn it. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4147316,00.html.
Wikileaks cables reveal that the Regime’s mistreatment of diplomats “could involve anything from “harsh verbal attacks to intimidate and rattle foreign diplomats” to allegations made by Syrians abroad about harassment by their own diplomatic staff.” Other undesirable rules of engagement besides deceit are provided in a guide, the post indicates. Therefore, this pattern was well known by US diplomatic Personnel. U.S. diplomats at the time described the Syrian regime as brutal, intellectually dishonest and defiant. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/18/syria-wikileaks-cable-assad-regime.
According to the Strategic Briefing from the Henry Jackson Society as of December, special forces assets could be used to coordinate an air campaign : “An air strike could be waged by U.S., British, French and Turkish aircraft from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan, all of which participated n enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone. U.S. Special Forces, the Special Air Service and Turkish and Qatari Special forces could coordinate on the ground with reel Syrian soldiers to establish an 11-square kilometer perimeter around Jisr al-Shughour. Training of additional defectors could be conducted at Incirlik Air Base and other regional bases or at a makeshift rebel base in the safe area itself.”
This assessment is for the creation of a safe zone in the northern border with Turkey, it is relevant since it suggests one of the classic roles of special forces teams. Forward Air Controllers are essential in locating and pointing targets to Air Assets. These forces are also well suited for training local troops and increasing their combat capabilities.
This is also a way to protect ethnic groups from the coming civil war, which the U.S. Department of State has said are at risk. It is also meant to keep the state from becoming a failed state. Per their policy review as of November of 2011, “By working diligently to channel non-violent opposition into a proto-insurgency, the regime seeks to discredit the opposition, scare minorities into submission, unite security forces against a common enemy, fragment international consensus and tear Syria apart along sectarian lines. This must be resisted.”
The Humanitarian Crisis
As the regime’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian people has escalated, a horrific number of Syrians have been displaced, internally as well as refugees who have fled across both the Turkish and Jordanian borders. On December 1, 2011 Robert Cowan wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine about an expanding war: “Any such escalation would almost certainly involve a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees have already left Syria (itself home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians). There are nearly 10,000 Syrians being sheltered in camps in Turkey. If the conflict intensifies, the number could jump exponentially: up to a million fled Libya earlier this year.”
He continued, “Faced with this potential crisis, regional leaders and European policy-makers seem to be edging toward proposals for some sort of humanitarian intervention. While Chinese and Russian diplomats darkly hint that NATO wants to launch another war, Western leaders have little stomach for a Libyan-style air campaign. European air forces need a break after their longer-than-expected operations over Libya, and the Syrian military still has considerable firepower.” http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/12/01/how_not_to_intervene_in_syria . This was an interesting development out of a magazine aimed at the foreign service.
On December 28, 2011 Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy reported, “The options under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/09/observing_the_observers .
This is where things get complex. Pepe Escobar of Asia Times online writes that the true goal of these humanitarian corridors are not what they seem.
“Although these ”humanitarians” come from NATO members US, Canada and France, and GCC members Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, their cover is that they’re only innocent ”monitors”, and not part of NATO. Needless to say these humanitarians consist of ground, naval, air force and engineering specialists,” Escobar wrote. “Their mission: infiltrate northern Syria, especially Idlib, Rastan, Homs but most of all the big prize, Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, with at least 2.5 million people, the majority of which are Sunni and Kurdish.” http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/ML02Ak01.html.
Whether Pepe Escobar is right or not, this is a possibility based on a long history of humanitarian operations being cover for something else. For example, it is suspected that the CIA, Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) and USAID are involved in Pakistan, where USAID has brought food aid after the floods. http://primarysources.newsvine.com/_news/2009/09/14/3262271-inside-the-cias-pakistan-tricks-from-usaid-to-xe .
It is broadly reported that the regime of Bashar Al Assad has kidnapped thousands of its own citizens. Many of those have been tortured and killed while in custody. According to Josh Rogin writing in Foreign Policy, “U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.” http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/09/26/robert_ford_families_of_syrian_american_protesters_being_tortured_by_regime
Hundreds of the victims of the regime were children, including a 2-year-old girl who was shot to prevent her “from growing up to become a demonstrator.” http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57332092/un-kids-killed-sexually-tortured-in-syria/ .
According to the United Nations five thousand Syrians have been killed, and over twenty thousand imprisoned. Given we expect to see those numbers increase by orders of magnitude as the country descends into civil war, we must just assume that things will continue to spiral out of control. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/01/15/tunisia-syria-intervention.html
Chemical Weapons and SCUDS
The Syrians have been developing chemical weapons for some time, and we have been worried about them for a while. Rachel Oswald writing for The Atlantic reported on December 7, 2011 that American has been keeping a close eye on that chemical arsenal, along with U.S. allies in Israel. Unnamed sources within the intelligence community reportedly told Mrs. Oswald that “The United States is believed to have prepared contingency plans for dealing with Syria’s toxic arsenal should it appear that the regime is about to use the weapons or pass them to affiliated extremist organizations such as Hezbollah.” http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/us-closely-monitoring-syrias-chemical-weapons-stockpile/249593/ .
Yediot Ahronot also reported on an accident in 2007, when dozens of Syrian military personnel died after an experiment to mount chemical weapons on SCUDS. .http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3451012,00.html This understandably, while dated, was a worrisome development and is part of a pattern.
We also have a report in the Israeli press that a senior officer of the Syrian army General Mustafa al-Sheikh, commander of the Syrian army’s chemical warfare unit, defected on December 22. If this is the case we are talking of a major defection, on an area of great concern for the United States and Israel, though we have not found independent verification. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/Flash.aspx/227601#.TxDzIWNWpwY.
U.S. fears regarding chemical weapons is that in a government collapse, those weapons could find their way into the wrong hands. Among the obvious suspects would be Hezbollah just across the border in Lebanon. While we worry that the Syrian government has them, Hezbollah becomes a nightmare scenario as far as the United States is concerned, let alone our ally, Israel.
There are also unsubstantiated reports of chemical agents used on protestors, as well as a captured shipment of chemical Warfare suits. This points to the probable willingness of the regime to use WMDs on its own people. http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/cms/harriercollectionitems/SyriaIntervention.pdf
Syrian cooperation with Iran
Iran and Syria are allies. As of 2005, the two nations signed a mutual defense pact. This increased tensions and has led to the building of a Naval port in the city of Latakia. Con Coughlin of the Observer reported that Iran agreed to fund this port as of August 12th, 2011. The goal of this port is to facilitate the movement of weapons and other logistical aide to the Syrian Regime. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/8699077/Iran-agrees-to-fund-Syrian-military-base.html .
In reality, the Iranians know that the fall of the Syrian regime would mean that they are probably next. Iran also knows that it is losing allies in the Middle East fast. This base, if functional, is an important chain in the transportation of weapons to supply the Syrian army. This is especially the case now that Turkey has stopped that chain of supply. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/12/us-turkey-syria-cargo-idUSTRE80B1TP20120112.
Having this cooperation between the Iranians and the Syrians is a real thorn in the side of the Western powers that seek to stop all logistical support, especially after the sanctions on Syria were imposed.
The Arab League’s role
The Arab League has an observer mission that many analysts believe has failed in stopping the carnage. A growing number of the monitors have quit before a report to the League comes on January 19. The observer mission is led by Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, who has come under fire from rights groups over his role in the Darfur conflict.
There is more; Secretary of State Clinton on January 13 said that the “need to end the Assad government’s assault on its own people.” http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/More+monitors+call+quits+Arab+League+mission+Syria+shows+cracks/5989102/story.html .
This matters since we may have a failed observer mission to stop the carnage and return Syria to stability, and options are quickly closing on the U.S. The situation is complex, since open warfare in the Middle East has major political ramifications, even if it is for humanitarian reasons.
Members of the Arab League have concluded that the country is descending onto civil war. Both Qatar and Tunis have called for intervention. This is the next level in escalation and will require the kind of logistical and technical support that Western powers can provide. That includes technical and logistical assets that Arab militaries lack. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/01/15/tunisia-syria-intervention.html
The just-issued travel alert from the U.S. Department of State offers a very tantalizing clue to this. Per the official travel warning of the Department of State as of January 11, 2012 “Syrian government constraints on diplomats and international staff, including the short-term detention of accredited diplomats, have made it difficult for U.S. Embassy personnel to adequately assess the current risks or the potential for continuing violence. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied permission to allow U.S. diplomats to travel within Syria, severely limiting the ability of consular officers to provide assistance to U.S. citizens outside the city of Damascus.” http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5633.html.
So did the San Diego soldier tell the truth when he posted on Facebook that he was being deployed to Syria? Most likely, yes. There are many indications that U.S. special forces are in Syria, though there is no definite proof. The bigger question is what the mission profile or profiles for any U.S. special forces in Syria? We have suggested a few possibilities, though by no means all. Are they engaged in humanitarian assistance, rescue, force multiplier, or as foreign press suggests, is the U.S. preparing the way for a much larger intervention?
The U.S. State Department and Department of Defense have been contacted for comment on this story, but as of this writing, no information has been received.
Nadin Abbott has an Master of Arts degree in History from San Diego State University.
January 17, 2012 “East County Magazine” — (San Diego), http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article30275.htm