The only reason a nation would intervene in a war in which it isn’t a primary belligerent is to change the likely outcome. Russia and Iran intervened in Syria to save the Assad regime from destruction.
The same is true for any terrorist network. Hezbollah’s decision to send hundreds of its terrorist troops to Syria, on Iran’s orders, is no surprise.
But what is President Obama’s reason to send fewer than 50 special operations troops into Syria? In the context of that conflict, his reason cannot be that they will change the outcome, ousting either President Bashar Assad or the Islamic State, far less both.
The context — the facts on the ground — was much simpler when Mr. Obama threatened Mr. Assad, drawing his risible “red line” against further chemical attacks on Syrians. Now, Russian combat aircraft are attacking Mr. Assad’s enemies. Troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are fighting his enemies as well, joined by the Hezbollah fighters.
This is no proxy war. Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t bother to send the “little green men” — Russian troops in uniform but without flags or Russian identification — like he did in conquering the Crimean Peninsula. Russian pilots are manning their aircraft. Iranians are on the battlefield in their own uniforms.
And who are they fighting? The Russian and Iranian forces are doing battle with the same forces that our “fewer than 50” special operations troops are supposed to be training.
Time and force are two of the primary variables in war. Sun Tzu described it in about 2300 B.C. Nathan Bedford Forrest summed it up when he said the prescription for victory is to get there “firstest with the most men.” It has been three years from the time Mr. Obama declared a “red line” against Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
In 2012, long before the Russians and Iranians intervened openly to defend Mr. Assad, we could have taken action to remove him. Now, Mr. Obama has taken action that is too little and too late.
What difference will those troops make? Not much. With Russians and Iranians — and Hezbollah terrorists — attacking the people we are supposed to be training, our troops will accomplish nothing that will change the course of the Syrian conflict. The fact that Russian aircraft are attacking the same forces we are trying to assist could have been prevented, but Mr. Obama chose not to do so. When the Russians told us to not violate “their” airspace, Mr. Obama agreed to “deconflicting” our operations with theirs. In short, the Russians declared a “no-fly zone” for U.S. aircraft, and Mr. Obama agreed.
Mr. Obama knows our few special operations troops won’t affect the outcome of the war. The Pentagon knows that. So what are they trying to do?
Let’s begin with what Mr. Obama’s decision is not. It’s not what the media call “mission creep,” a term that came out of the Vietnam War. It’s an accusatory term meaning that political and military leaders are covertly expanding our goals in the war as an excuse to engage more and more American forces. In the Vietnam War, we began with President John F. Kennedy ordering a few troops in to train the South Vietnamese. Soon after, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive increase in ground troops, naval forces and air power, taking over the war from the South Vietnamese. That experience defined mission creep.
Mr. Obama said that we would degrade and then destroy ISIS, but his actions have never indicated that the goal was to destroy ISIS. Our campaign of air strikes in Iraq have not driven ISIS out of its strongholds in key Iraqi and Syrian cities. We’ve not provided Kurdish forces with the arms they’ve begged for in their fight against ISIS.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who would have us believe that this is not a change in Mr. Obama’s anti-ISIS strategy, is correct in a perfectly perverse way. What Mr. Obama is doing is a sort of “mission creep” but with a different aim than expanding the war. His aim is to affect the 2016 election, not the outcome of the war in Syria.
To further that goal, diplomats are meeting to discuss a solution to the Syrian war. Not only are the Russians and some of the European governments that participated in negotiating the nuclear weapons deal with Iran participating, but so is Iran itself. Iran has, by Mr. Obama’s agreement, been given legitimacy in all future negotiations on the Middle East.
Mr. Obama’s mission for our forces is not to win the war, or even affect its outcome. The mission is to make the White House appear as if it’s taking effective action in Syria as it says it has in Iraq.
Our troops will be exposed to Russian air attack and ground attack by Iran and its Hezbollah allies. Some will be killed, and some will be injured. They aren’t, we’re assured, in a combat role. But if you’re getting bombed, strafed and attacked by ground troops, it would be hard to convince you that you’re not in combat.
The Oct. 22 death in Iraq of Delta Force operator Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler happened only eight days before President Obama ordered the fewer than 50 special forces troops to Syria. We have boots on the ground fighting and dying in Iraq again. The mission creeps are in command, without a thought of how we might win the war. All we can be sure of is that Mr. Obama is trying to protect his legacy from the blame that will come from defeat. Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”