The new Syria deployments are set to occur in tandem with a likely White House decision that would officially abolish the troop caps that were put in place for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by the Obama administration. The number of troops in Iraq and Syria were officially capped by the previous administration at about 5,000 and 500, respectively. Military commanders have said in the past that the caps have split up units for the sake of keeping troop numbers low.“If the caps were removed, it would allow us to fight as we train,” said the defense official who discussed the potential surge. “Military doctrine promotes agility, and it would help us respond as conditions dictate.”
This approach recognizes that without additional U.S. firepower and troops we cannot leave the task to the Kurds or solely to the opposition forces. Among other concerns, even if Raqqa is liberated, it may fall under the sway of Iran and Russia at the expense of non-jihadist Sunnis. Kim and Fred Kagan see that the longer-term objective cannot merely be freeing Raqqa:
The key is finding new Sunni partners and taking the fight to new terrain, specifically, southeastern Syria, where ISIS leaders have refuge. American military forces will be necessary. But the U.S. can recruit new Sunni Arab partners by fighting alongside them in their land. The goal in the beginning must be against ISIS because it controls the last areas in Syria where the U.S. can reasonably hope to find Sunni allies not yet under the influence of al Qaeda. But the aim after evicting ISIS must be to raise a Sunni Arab army that can ultimately defeat al Qaeda and help negotiate a settlement to the war.
There is plenty of disagreement as to whether and how much to assist the Kurds (whom Turkey views as a threat). Some experts favor a confederation with independent areas for Kurds and Sunnis. Nevertheless, two things are clear: 1.) Mattis intends to shape the battlefield in ways that do not favor the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance, and 2.) There is no “negotiated solution” so long as Bashar al-Assad sees total victory as possible. (“The U.S. will have to pressure the Assad regime, Iran and Russia to end the conflict on terms that the Sunni Arabs will accept,” the Kagans write. “That will be easier to do with the independence and leverage of a secure base inside Syria.”) In other words, it doesn’t look like the moves one would expect from the odious “grand bargain.” (Russia gets Ukraine and “helps” defeat the Islamic State.) Whether President Trump and his pro-Russia cronies in the White House understand this remains to be seen.