U.S. special operations forces in Syria do many things in the war against the Islamic State. They gather intelligence, build relationships with local communities, help spot targets for air strikes and train and advise local forces on the ground. One thing they cannot do, though, is enter into range of the enemy’s fire.
Four U.S. military officials told me that the 300 or so U.S. special operators in Syria are under very strict rules of engagement. Because such rules are highly classified, these sources have requested anonymity.
But the rules in place, known as “last cover and concealment,” are highly restrictive compared to special operations missions in the war on terror before 2014. Those rules of engagement allowed for U.S. special operators to fight alongside the local forces they trained. The rules of engagement for Syria, according to one military officer, amount to: “don’t get shot.”
Other U.S. defense officials told me, however, that U.S. special operators in Syria were allowed to defend themselves if they came under fire. But they confirmed that the troops were not engaging in offensive missions. “Our mission in Iraq and Syria is to enable local forces in defeating ISIL — with air support, intel support, training and equipment,” Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told me Wednesday. “Our forces always have the right to defend themselves, but they do not engage directly in offensive combat operations.”
Behind the scenes, the restrictive rules of engagement have met opposition. U.S. military officials tell me key members of Congress as well as officers on the ground in Syria and Iraq have asked for the flexibility to do more. One such lawmaker is Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The communications director for his committee, Claude Chafin, declined to discuss the matter in detail. But he said, “The chairman is concerned about the restrictions placed on our guys which limit their effectiveness in helping others.”
In some ways the rules of engagement for Syria are reminiscent of the restrictions placed on U.S. special operators in El Salvador in the 1980s. The U.S. forces in that tiny country helped train the embattled government’s counter-insurgency forces. But they were not allowed to go into battle with the forces they trained.
Roger Carstens, a former lieutenant colonel for the Green Berets who trained local forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me there are good battlefield reasons for allowing the adviser to fight with the forces he trains. “They gain legitimacy and credibility and they show your partner forces that you share the risk,” he said.
Carstens also said that fighting alongside indigenous troops is a kind of vetting process. “The instructor gets to see whether the forces he is training have absorbed their training,” which he said is important to evaluate how effective they are.
On the other hand, a benefit of the restrictive rules of engagement is that so far the Pentagon has not had to acknowledge any special operators based in Syria have been killed in action. Only three such troops have been killed in action since President Barack Obama launched the new war against in the Islamic State two years ago. All were based in Iraq.
“If you take a look at it from the soldier’s perspective, it’s always best to be on the ground sharing risk with your trainees,” Carstens told me. “But as Carl Von Clausewitz reminds us, war is a political act, and sometimes what might make sense to the American soldier or even the tactical or operational commander may not make sense on the strategic and political level for all sorts of reasons.”
For Obama, the politics of his new war in Syria and Iraq are hard to miss. Until 2014, he boasted of how he was ending his predecessor’s war. Last week, he began a press conference at the Pentagon with updates on combat in Libya, Iraq and Syria. His successor will inherit those wars. It will be up to the next president to determine whether Americans training the locals to fight the Jihadists should also join them in battle.