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Sending ground troops to Syria alongside US Special Forces is the right strategy

The US should heed Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s recent announcement that the Kingdom is “ready to send ground troops” to Syria to fight Daesh and prevent Iran-backed Shiite extremists from occupying territory liberated from Daesh. “The Kingdom and other Gulf countries are ready to allocate forces to fight” alongside US Special Forces that are already on the ground in eastern Syria, he said.

Why is this announcement important? Saudi Arabia had told the administration of former US President Barack Obama that it was ready to send its Special Forces into Syria as part of a comprehensive strategy to work with the anti-Daesh coalition and local partners on the ground.

However, Obama was overly concerned with the potential reaction by Iran, with which he had just signed a nuclear deal, and had little interest in expanding US commitment to the fight in Syria while the focus was primarily on fighting Daesh in Iraq.

The good news is that with the new administration of US President Donald Trump, there seems to be renewed bandwidth by Washington to explore new options in Syria in partnership with the Arab Coalition and Turkey.

Trump has instructed Defense Secretary James Mattis to prepare a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh. Trump’s national security team will likely avoid one of the biggest mistakes made by the Obama administration: Viewing the conflicts in Iraq and Syria as two wholly separate theaters of operation.

Further setting them apart from Obama’s failed approach to Syria and Iraq, both Mattis and newly appointed National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will pay particular attention to assessing the necessary resources, manpower and post-conflict stabilization support necessary to achieve short-term military objectives and sustain those gains in the long term.

The roughly 500 US Special Forces operators currently in eastern Syria is insufficient if the US and the Arab Coalition, alongside Turkey, are to effectively deploy the necessary firepower and support to local Sunni Arab tribal forces to drive Daesh from its remaining sanctuaries in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor provinces.

A larger number of US military personnel, alongside Saudi and Arab Coalition Special Forces, will be necessary to tip the scale against Daesh for good in eastern Syria. Without a special focus on the end game in Syria, tactical advances against Daesh will be of no strategic consequence.

This also entails, as Al-Jubeir pointed out, a specific commitment to ensuring that neither the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) nor its proxy Shiite extremist militias are able to gain and occupy additional territory freed from Daesh.

Obama lost valuable time vacillating on what course of action to take. As a result, both Daesh and Iran were able to take advantage of the power vacuum left in Syria and Iraq. There is a real opportunity now to rectify past mistakes.

Oubai Shahbandar

Given the experience that senior Trump administration officials such as Mattis and McMaster have in confronting Iranian proxy forces on the battlefield, Tehran is likely to figure more in the White House’s calculus as a new plan is crafted for Syria.

The collective experience of Trump’s closest advisers in fighting against both Daesh and Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite extremist militias also comes with a finely tuned understanding of the need for political resolutions to accompany and compliment battlefield campaigns.

This is why a renewed US commitment to a political transition in Syria must be loudly communicated as renewed peace talks begin this week in Geneva between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Until now, there has been a clear tendency by former Obama officials and the UN special representative to the peace talks, Staffan de Mistura, to peddle away from emphasizing the political transition in Syria stipulated by the Geneva communique.

There is renewed optimism that the US can craft a new workable strategy for Syria in partnership with its Arab allies. The flurry of diplomatic activity is revealing. Mattis just concluded high-level talks with the leadership in Abu Dhabi, and Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, met with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday, during which Syria was a major topic of discussion.

The US must deploy at minimum another 2,000-3,000 military personnel to Syria, and work with Arab Coalition Special Forces to train and advise local anti-Daesh Sunni tribal forces. Washington has a ready partner in Riyadh to change the tragic course of events in Syria.

Obama lost valuable time vacillating on what course of action to take. As a result, both Daesh and Iran were able to take advantage of the power vacuum left in Syria and Iraq. There is a real opportunity now to rectify past mistakes and set the necessary conditions on the ground for long-term stability to thrive in Syria.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a fellow in New America’s International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security.