Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Last week, after suffering an IED attack in Syria on Thursday, one more member of the US special operations community, Army Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar, lost his life – creating another Gold Star family.
Sgt. Matt Tonroe, a member of the UK armed forces, was also killed: another reminder of the price coalition partners have paid in the fight against ISIS.
This grim milestone came even as questions grow more urgent about America’s future presence in Syria – what it will look like and how long it might endure. US policymakers are walking a diplomatic high wire between committing to staying in Syria and infuriating NATO ally Turkey, or pulling out of Syria and emboldening Iran and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
On my last trip to northern Syria a few weeks ago, I met parents working hard to rebuild their lives and their families: veterans of the ISIS fight, focused on bringing stability and decent governance to the region. I met with US forces who said they trusted their partners on the ground, saw them as a bulwark against both rising Iranian influence and the return of ISIS, and wanted to continue standing behind their partner force.
And I visited cemeteries whose rows of headstones serve as a testament to just how many Syrian lives the ISIS fight claimed.
The stakes are real. As is the need to tackle the pressing policy questions head on.
When it comes to Syria, the same set of tradeoffs has existed for years. But now they are being thrust once more into the headlines for three reasons:
1) The end of the fight against ISIS, which many thought arrived with Raqqa’s liberation late last year.
2) The recent comments from President Donald Trump stating that the US will withdraw from Syria “very soon.”
3) The loss of American life as policymakers decide the shape of America’s future footprint in Syria.
Taken together, these three issues point to a critical moment, in which long-festering policy questions that have been years in the making have created a pivotal turning point for the US in Syria.
Meanwhile, US service members – in particular from the special operations community – continue to deploy for what is now an even more challenging mission: continuing the ISIS fight while attention dwindles, Turkey threatens to invade Manbij – where US forces remain present for now – and where the future is decidedly unclear.
America must engage with its wars and weigh in on the policy choices up ahead. And an informed conversation has to be had about the benefits of remaining in or departing entirely from Syria.
Throughout the post-9/11 wars it has proven easier for capable US forces to win the fight on the battlefield, but far harder to cement peace and stability afterward. The question now is will Syria be different, and will critical choices be made now that make it so?
The end of the ISIS fight unfroze a battlefield in which the common enemy had previously kept other tensions largely at bay.
The US and Russia enjoyed frequent use of the deconfliction line to communicate with each other and keep their forces from directly engaging one another.
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad also stayed mostly out of America’s way. And the US’s NATO ally Turkey – while deeply unhappy with the US decision to back northern Syrian Kurds as the most effective fighting force against ISIS – largely kept their unhappiness on mute while the ISIS battle raged.
Today things are different, as Turkey threatens to invade Manbij, a town where US special operations forces patrol regularly.
The US is working to come to a deal with Turkey that allays its concerns, while enabling the US to remain in northern Syrian alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab battle partners. But no one is certain that such a deal will be reached. How these questions get decided will shape the future of America’s role in the country.
The comments from Trump that the US will withdraw “very soon” added even more uncertainty to the shape of America’s presence. And it made US allies – the Syrian Kurds, who America still wants to lead the fight against ISIS – even more concerned that the US was going to abandon them.
To be clear, uncertainty has been the rule, not the exception, of Syria policy from the start of the Obama administration’s foray into it in 2011. As former US envoy to Syria Frederic Hof noted recently, “President Obama would caricature external alternatives by creating and debating straw men: invented idiots calling for the invasion and occupation of Syria … He did not mean to do it, but Barack Obama’s performance in Syria produced global destabilization.”
But these remarks are the latest reminder that nothing is set, nor certain, when it comes to the US presence in Syria – even as US policymakers in the State Department and in the military work to navigate and plan for that future.
Finally, and most pressingly, is the issue of American loss of life. In 2016, for the first time, more members of US special operations forces were killed in action than conventional forces. This despite the fact that special operations forces account for less than 5% of the entire US military.
This underlines the fact that the special operations community – while a small slice of the military – has born an outsized share of the fight and its losses of late in the post-9/11 wars.
In the past, special operations forces were used to supplement conventional forces. And now they have become the light footprint, limited visibility go-to choice for policymakers.
For now, the Syria mission continues to be largely a special operations operation. The loss of Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar reminds us of this.
This nation has asked a great deal of its service members in these post-9/11 wars. They deserve a nation and a policymaking apparatus that is engaged with what it is asking of them — and the partner force they recruit – and that offers clarity on what comes next.