All public signs point to failure in a key U.S. effort to turn the tide of the brutal Syrian civil war — the training and fielding of a vetted and politically palatable Syrian force to fight the Islamic State. As Nancy Youssef reveals in The Daily Beast, exasperated U.S. officials are trying to adapt in the wake of disastrous setbacks for the Syrian forces back by the United States, including the New Syrian Army and Division 30. An initial contingent was beaten up badly by rival groups, including al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, not long after it was introduced back into the wild. Washington’s favored Syrians are now in disarray and in a public spat with the Pentagon over its mission.
This should lead us to ask, why can’t the United States conduct effective unconventional warfare any longer?
What is unconventional warfare? The Department of Defense defines it as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.”
Recent examples of successful UW campaigns and supporting operations include Afghanistan in 2001 and Northern Iraq in 2003, in which the 5th and 10th Special Forces Groups conducted operations built on a foundation of long established relationships either through the intelligence community (Afghanistan) or directly between Special Forces and indigenous Kurdish elements (in Iraq dating back to 1991 and Operation Provide Comfort).
In the case of Syria, the Obama administration failed to allow strategists and planners to develop and conduct a comprehensive, integrated, and holistic unconventional and political warfare campaign. How do we know this? The terms President Obama used to describe this effort tell the story. Instead of a campaign to support a strategy, the White House directed the military to implement a “program.” Instead of unconventional warfare, the White House chose to call the program “train and equip” and severely limited U.S. personnel from conducting the necessary tasks of an unconventional warfare campaign . This is evidenced by the sole focus on train and equip without ground assessments and direct advising of indigenous forces, as well as the lack of authorities necessary to develop an underground and auxiliary — fundamental elements of any unconventional warfare campaign. It is also troubling that there are two “train and equip programs,” one being conducted by the military and the other by the CIA, according to media reports. Most egregious is that the Obama administration started much too late. The right time to start an unconventional warfare campaign against the Assad regime was years ago when it was actually a feasible, acceptable, and suitable course of action. Had an unconventional warfare campaign been effectively executed it may have resulted in the overthrow of Assad through an organized resistance with significant support from the Syrian population. It is true that we cannot know what the outcome might have been, but the situation would likely be better than the one we now face.
As Eliot Cohen and John Gooch wrote in their seminal work,Military Misfortunes, all military failures can be attributed to three causes: failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate. Our military and government agencies have done a lot of learning and adapting over the last fourteen years, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. However, the future may require better anticipation of threats and opportunities in the area of unconventional and political warfare. The United States must to be able to both support resistance movements through unconventional warfare campaigns and counter other state and non-state actors conducting their own unique forms of unconventional warfare, including ISIL, Al Qaeda, Russia, Iran, and even the Chinese.