KOBANI, Syria – Talking with American special operators as we walk in the summer heat through the sprawling training facilities of the Syrian Arab Coalition, one sentiment is immediately obvious: relief.
It is not that these elite American troops are relaxed about the mission; it is that they make clear they think it’s working and see that the end is achievable. And for those of us who have written about and covered the post-9/11 wars, that is indeed a shift.
“My military guidance is clear; what we are trying to do here in terms of the campaign against Daesh is clear; the direction that we receive from CENTCOM is clear,” said one senior U.S. commander, a leader of the mission to train and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the Syrian Arab Coalition are a part. “We help the SDF clear territory, we help the internal security force hold territory, and to the extent we can within our authorities, there is a bit of building going on.”
The view from this dusty base in northern Syria is that the mission – and the Washington policy decision to fight ISIS “by, with, and through” local forces trained by elite Americans – is succeeding. But that mission is on a collision course with geopolitical reality. Washington has backed the Syrian Kurds’ central role in the SDF, while Turkey considers those forces to be separatist terrorists. U.S. special operations forces leaders here say they feel Syrian Kurds have a chance to help end the cycle of insurgency that has burned across Iraq and Syria since 2003, and turn at least part of a war zone into a governable peace. But if Washington turns its back on the SDF to placate a NATO ally, these leaders say the American-trained and -armed Syrian forces could be overrun, their gains lost – and this special operations mission will be for naught.
On this sun-scorched ground, that policy debate feels far removed from the Kurds and Arabs standing in front of U.S. forces, donning new uniforms as they prepare to eject ISIS from terrain it holds or to bar its return. Officials spoke with us about the U.S. mission in Syria, but asked us to protect American names, ranks, and roles due to the nature of the work and the mission.
“I want to free people and innocent kids from ISIS,” said Abdullah Ibraheem, an SDF trainee from Raqqa. He will spend two weeks in basic training before heading to the front lines. “I want to protect my dignity, my country, and free it from terrorism…I’m excited to be going to the battle. I’m happy I’ll free the children.”
The Americans’ affection for these fighters is clear.
“It is a dream SF mission,” a second U.S. special operations forces commander in Syria said. He was referring to the Army’s Special Forces, the Green Berets who have trained foreign fighters for decades. “It is a textbook mission for special operations.” Why? Because, they say, of the forces they are backing are in the fight. Reliable. “They are more like us; they are just aggressive,” this commander said of the SDF and its Kurdish contingent, the YPG, to me. “A stable group of pragmatic people.” And in the case of the Kurds, pragmatic people who see this conflict as an opportunity to govern themselves. “They want to win,” says the second commander. “You don’t spend your time pushing them into the fight — they want to go into the fight.”
“There is a real desire to be seen as a legitimate partner,” he said of the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces more broadly. “These people want to do the right thing. They see it as this is their opportunity to change the perception of them.” Indeed, the varying perceptions of Syrian Kurds and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units of the YPG are a source of tension between the State Department and the Pentagon.
For their part, the U.S. special operators see them as partners who never leave a fight. And the mission, they say, doesn’t cost a lot for all that it offers America. “It is not a major investment,” says the second commander. “We have a working partner here and that is a rarity in this part of the world.”
And they say there is one scenario that could turn the situation from dream to nightmare: the U.S. abandons the Syrian Kurds.
“The best way for us to force them back into the extremist camp is to leave them,” the second commander said.
American commanders say it’s crucial to stick with the SDF, including YPG, while the multi-ethnic coalition is making progress in retaking ground. After the SDF liberates territory from ISIS, the plan is for local security forces to hold those streets – in Raqqa, under the auspices of the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, or RISF – while a civil council with a male and female head helps citizens make local decisions on local issues. That, too, has been working in other liberated villages and towns.
But local leaders say they will need more resources if the civil councils are to have a chance at achieving lasting stability.
“Water, electricity. Security is very important for us,” said Leila Mustafa, co-head of the Raqqa Civil Council and a Kurdish civil engineer. Right now, she says, she and other civil council members are working without pay to serve their city. “To rebuild Raqqa, we need a lot of money and a lot of support.”
Her sentiment was echoed by her counterparts in Manbij. Liberated from ISIS one year ago, the the northern Syrian town has been slowly rebuilding on its own, without help from the international community.
“People are looking for public services,” says Ibrahim Qaftan of the Manbij Civil Council. “America can help us provide these faster and more easily, so our services will not be slow” to appear and to make a difference in people’s lives.
Special operations leaders see the on-the-ground need and are helping State Department officials meet civil council members in person and via video conference; they know that their diplomatic colleagues will ultimately decide whether and how to offer sustained support here. They also know that lack of services and lousy governance often leads to disenfranchisement, insurgency, and a return in force by U.S. troops. For now, they say the “whole of government” approach is on track to work in Syria. And they say they see Syrians pushing their own country forward.
“There will be bumps and hiccups, but the model I see unfolding before me — as the noose tightens on Raqqa and more terrain is liberated and the Raqqa Internal Security Forces come in behind and take over some of those zones — is working,” says the senior U.S. special operations forces commander, the leader of the SDF train-and-assist mission. “A lot of times when the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, or RISF, take over territory from SDF, we haven’t had anything to do with it at all. Syrians themselves work it out and the RISF tells us. We say, ‘That is great, that is why we are giving you training and equipment, vehicles and communications tools, so you can keep building your capability.’”
Not everyone is as optimistic. Veteran diplomats immersed in the region’s bigger-picture realities are skeptical of elite troops’ judgement on the Middle East’s political futures.
“I trust them to carry out military operations,” said James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, of U.S. special operations officials. “I’m not sure they are the right folks to fathom very intricate political ideological and ethnic movements in a region as alien to even those of us who have spent much time there.”
Jeffrey has advocated for swift military action against ISIS since its emergence, but also has warned about the delicate intricacies Washington must consider within Syria. He says he understands special operations leaders supporting their battle buddies, but it is a lot more complicated.
“We have seen this movie many times,” Jeffery told Defense One in an email. “I’m actually in favor of moving heaven and earth to keep supporting (the Kurds) but that means, one, knowing why in larger scheme of things and, two, bringing Turks on board.” That latter part, hearing Turkey’s concerns and bringing them on board, he says, is absolutely essential.
The job of supporting Syrian fighters has become easier also since President Donald Trump’s White House loosened authorities – or perhaps has simply been less involved in day-to-day operations. SOF leaders say the biggest difference is the four-fold increase in U.S. special operations trainers on the ground in Syria since late spring. Overall, several hundred more U.S. special operations forces have arrived this year. While the Pentagon will not give exact figures, the total number of Americans involved in the mission inside the country is estimated at roughly 1,000.
The American focus is not just on the size of the SDF and the number of internal security forces to hold the streets they retake afterward, but also their ethnic makeup. While Turkey and other critics have charged that the SDF is just a dressed-up Kurdish force with a few Arab forces included, U.S. officials say Arab leaders are very much a part of this mission, and that ethnic makeup is less important to the individuals actually doing the fighting. Or the civilians charged with rebuilding afterward.
“Folks on the ground here are focused on effectiveness and securing liberated territory from Daesh and far less concerned about what the man on the left or right’s ethnicity is,” says the special operations train-and-assist mission leader. “They often, in the meetings I see, chuckle a little bit when folks ask them, ‘What percentage of you are Arab and Kurdish?’ They don’t understand the significance of the question because for them they are a little bit all in this together. They are in a fight to secure liberated territory and keep it liberated from ISIS.”
U.S. special operations forces say that once territory is liberated, and responsibility for it is handed over to RISF and the Raqqa Civil Council, it should silence critics who say Syrian Kurds are trying to keep hold of Arab lands.
U.S. special operations leaders in Syria have their own experience with such handoffs during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they want those hard-won lessons of governance to be heeded.
“I can draw a direct line between the work we have done with our civilian colleagues on the civil councils and security forces, and the efficacy of the [counter-ISIS] campaign, keeping the campaign on track, preventing reemergence,” the senior commander said. “I see legitimate means of addressing grievances without resorting to violence, I see legitimate security forces that protect people equally without repression, I see the rule of law taking root, and I see civil councils [that] are actually able to provide resources for the disadvantaged members of their population.” Reemergence. In other words, insurgency. It is what everyone is watching for. And so far, U.S. officials say, they haven’t seen signs of it.
“I was in Baghdad when it was liberated, I was in Afghanistan on the invasion,” the commander said. “When I look at the trends, I don’t see signs of fracture and we are watching for it very closely. And we don’t see it. Because when the SDF liberates towns, they really are serious about deferring to local councils once they are established and it is not just lip service.”
Baghdad is on the mind of many special operations leaders I spoke with in and out of Syria about the mission to defeat ISIS.
“We are finishing the Iraq war — these are the same people we have been fighting,” the second commander said. “This is a generational war and this is our generation.”
And, in his view, the fight would be closer to ending if the U.S. stands by the Kurds — and the Arabs who are fighting alongside them.
“The endgame I am fighting for is an alternative in Syria. SDF are perfectly capable, with assistance, of doing the job. It is a [counter-terrorism] mission, a defeat-ISIS mission, that in the process is going to produce an alternative,” the second special operations leader said. “I don’t want my son fighting over here, I don’t want my daughter fighting here, I want to finish this.”
Kamiran Sadoun contributed to this report.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.