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Obama is sending US special forces to Syria. Here's what that means.

A US special forces operator, nicknamed "Cowboy," in Afghanistan.
A US special forces operator, nicknamed "Cowboy," in Afghanistan.
(Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. The Obama administration will send a small number of US ground troops to Syria, according to multiple reports sourced to US officials.
  2. The deployment will consist of somewhere between 20 and 30 special forces operators, per Reuters.
  3. They'll be conducting an "advise-and-assist" mission, which means that their main task will be working with US partners fighting ISIS on the ground rather than frontline combat.
  4. One US official says those partners could include Kurdish forces or the "Syrian Democratic Forces," a somewhat nebulous group of Kurdish and Arab forces allied against ISIS in the country's north.
  5. According to NBC, a senior US official described the deployment as a "shift," but not a "change," in US anti-ISIS policy.

What this deployment does and doesn't mean

kurdish fighters in kobane

(Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. (Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Let's be clear: Sending a couple dozen special forces does not (necessarily) mean the US is sliding toward an Iraq-style war in Syria. In some ways, in fact, it's not that much of a change in policy: The US has already conducted at least one special forces raid in Syria, in which American soldiers actually engaged ISIS forces in combat. This is more of a continuation of the use of special forces in the country than it is a brand new policy.

But the fact that they're being deployed on an ongoing advising mission, rather than a one-time raid, is significant. Advising missions generally involve training US partners and helping them more efficiently coordinate the military effort against ISIS.

The groups that they'll likely be helping — Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces — also tell us something very important about the mission. These groups are currently pressing ISIS near Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria and the caliphate's de facto capital. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter identified retaking Raqqa as one of three central efforts in US strategy against ISIS, along with a similar effort against the Iraqi city of Ramadi and special forces raids.

This makes a degree of sense, given that ISIS is on the defensive near Raqqa. The Syrian city is "obviously central to Daesh's holdings," Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, told me (using an Arabic term for ISIS) on Tuesday. "It's operated as something of a de facto capital, it's central to the Daesh narrative, and there's also resources nearby."

However, helping the Kurds and Kurdish-allied Arabs seize the heavily Arab city of Raqqa entails risks. Kurdish forces may have little interest in risking a major assault to liberate non-Kurdish territory. And even if they do, using Kurds against Arabs could drive locals into ISIS's arms. "The prospects for success are far from clear," Bonsey said, "and the potential for Daesh to benefit for recruitment even as it loses some territory is real."

So if US advisers are in fact going to help the effort to retake Raqqa, as the comments from US officials suggest, then this represents doubling down on a risky — but potentially hugely important — offensive against ISIS.

VIDEo: The war in Syria, explained

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