“The problem in Syria today, just as in Vietnam, is that there is no charted avenue for U.S. military action to lead to Washington’s goals — hence the incoherence of strategy.”
By John Prados
PIOUS WORDS AND high-minded rhetoric obscure an incoherence in the United States’ strategy in Syria.
So far as is apparent today, the Obama Administration favours one partisan front while pursuing twin goals of compelling regime change on the existing Syrian government and defenestrating a different partisan grouping. The means to secure these objectives consists of the use of special operations forces (SOF) on the ground in combination with airpower.
American special forces arm and train local fighters and who then take the fight to the enemy. SOF troops conduct their own operations as well. The strategy enables Washington to act directly in the situation, seemingly without any large-scale commitment of United States forces.
Additionally, special forces constitute a ready-made apparatus for gathering intelligence directly inside the crisis area, which Washington has so far lacked. SOF also provide expertise suitable to guide other U.S. forces in support of the pro-U.S. Syrian partisans. Finally, they create a presence that invites an enemy response—which often creates concentrations of hostile forces that can be targeted from the air. This hallowed formula, apparently considered proven in 2001-2002, as a result of the early weeks and months of the American war in Afghanistan, has roots that go back to American involvement in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s.
Both the Vietnam and Afghan episodes in the history of U.S. special operations forces are explored in my new study of the species, The US Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know, recently published by Oxford University Press. The book also has such useful features as a “who’s who of great American SOF leaders”.
The effort in Syria — even its Special Forces component — has the feel of Vietnam just before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Then, in 1963-1964, Washington faced a similar situation. The White House worried then that its Vietnamese partners did not fight while the communists fought all too well. Motivating local allies brought a role for SOF, responsible then as now for the bulk of United States training missions to foreign military establishments. Further, the raiding role obviously called for Special Forces.
U.S. officials and military officials maintained that the sheer force of American dynamism could enthuse the ineffectual local allies. The more Washington could control actions the nearer America would get to our goals. This unilateral strategy led to the infamous OPLAN 34-A, specifically designed to use SOF to disrupt the North Vietnamese adversary. A series of small scale but well aimed attacks of various types were conducted to harass the enemy and force the North Vietnamese to reconsider their support for insurgency in the South.
That never happened. The SOF were unable to locate and destroy targets vital enough to devastate the North Vietnamese war effort. That was certainly true of Project Shining Brass, a series of SOF raids launched against the communist supply route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Similarly, the 34-A pinpricks at enemy coastal defenses, fuel storage tanks, or island radar facilities accomplished little. In fact, they may have made the strategic situation worse: enemy naval craft, like a swarm of enraged bees, emerged to harass U.S. warships off shore creating an escalation that led directly to a much greater United States war in Vietnam.
In Syria the United States has a similar—but worse—problem. The structure of outside intervenors and local proxies follows the conflict’s texture but is similar to what was seen in pre-Tonkin Vietnam. Currently, Washington is ranged on the weaker side of the partisans, not the stronger one of the government. And the conflict is triangular, with a second partisan grouping (ISIS), which the U.S. abhors, also fighting the government. U.S. actions help one of Washington’s enemies no matter whether they are directed at Islamic State militants or the Assad regime. The expert fighters of SOF are out of their depth in the political morass of Syria. President Obama’s response at each stage of the Syrian imbroglio, just as in Vietnam, has been to increase the U.S. profile in hopes of empowering favored Syrian factions. Special forces had better hope that works, because otherwise they are out on a limb.
The problem in Syria today, just as in Vietnam, is that there is no charted avenue for U.S. military action to lead to Washington’s goals — hence the incoherence of strategy. The Syrian war has led to widespread destruction and a wave of refugees flooding into Europe. Let us hope that that tragedy leads to some deeper thinking in Western capitals, because so far this incoherent strategy has only created a mess.
John Prados is a Washington-based historian and a senior fellow of the National Security Archive. His current book is The US Special Forces: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press). For additional analysis see his website, http://www.johnprados.com.