Though the new contingent of U.S. troops would initially serve in an advisory role to local forces, the Defense Department has considered deploying combat troops for the first time into Syria to accelerate the fight against ISIS, an unnamed defense official told CNN in February.
Trump directed Defense Secretary James Mattis in January to provide a strategy within 30 days that more aggressively attacks ISIS in Syria. Mattis submitted a broad outline to the president at the end of last month, passing the torch to Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, who is now responsible for fleshing out the details of Mattis' proposal. Votel is expected to submit his recommendations to Mattis at the end of the month.
Votel told reporters last week that he would not hesitate to request more conventional military units in Iraq if necessary.
The United States currently maintains about 500 Special Operations forces in Syria, in addition to some 250 Rangers and 200 Marines, according to the Post, though the military has not confirmed an exact number citing security reasons.
The proposed deployment would coincide with a White House directive that would abolish the formal troop cap in Iraq and Syria set in place by the Obama administration. Former President Barack Obama capped the number of troops in Syria to 500, though commanders have the authority to temporarily surpass that limit.
The additional troops, if approved by the administration, would primarily advise Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria battling against ISIS.
"This would still be by, with, and through our local partners on the ground," an unnamed defense official told the Post.
The troop surge would mark a significant shift away from the Obama administration, which refused to deploy conventional ground troops into Syria, though a small number of special operations forces operate in the war-torn country.
If the liberation of Mosul in Iraq is any guide to a possible deployment of US combat troops in Syria, they may not be needed. In fact, it may be better that US forces maintain their distance from what is sure to be savage fighting in the streets of a major urban center that will almost certainly result in large numbers of civilian casualties. If ISIS could create the impression that US troops were responsible for the civilian deaths, it would hand the terrorists a propaganda weapon that could slow the progress of Arab and Kurdish troops who will be doing most of the fighting to retake Raqqa.
Just as long as we don't have to depend on the regular Syrian army or Hezb'allah for force protection, there shouldn't be too many worries for our soldiers. They will be advising the anti-Assad rebels from the rear areas as well as engaging in long range artillery fire well back from the front lines.
But the best of intentions are sometimes not enough in war. The US must be careful to avoid the Syrian tar baby that could embroil the Trump administration in the byzantine civil war where allies and enemies sometimes change places on a day to day basis.