Two local congressman opposed to military action against Syria say they are concerned that language in the senate bill authorizing the use of force may leave the door open for the presence of U.S. personnel on the ground there.
The bill, passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday by a 10-7 vote, “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.”
But the term “combat operations” is open to interpretation, say the legislators. And, because Central Intelligence Agency activities are not covered by the committee, it does not address the use of CIA operatives.
“That is always a concern when you authorize force,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-15), when asked if he thinks the Senate bill leaves open the possibility of any U.S. presence on the ground in Syria, either as part of an aircrew recovery mission or some type of special operations forces or CIA mission. “That is one of the main reasons why I do not support U.S. military intervention in Syria at this time.”
Rep. Richard Nugent (R-11) offered similar concerns when asked.
“The senate bill leaves the door open,” said Nugent, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which will hold a hearing on the issue Tuesday. “The limitation on combat operations does not limit the use of special operations forces or the CIA in regards to getting involved there, It leaves it way, way too broad.”
Special operations forces missions in Syria would be coordinated through U.S. Special Operations Command Central, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base. U.S. Central Command, also headquartered at MacDill, is responsible for U.S. military forces in the region.
Nugent, who will attend a classified briefing on Syria Monday afternoon, said he plans on asking about what, if any possibility exists that there could be U.S. personnel on the ground in Syria in the event of an attack.
Navy Cmdr. William Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email Thursday that “we will not discuss specific contingencies. From our perspective, the president’s language has been clear: our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope, focused on deterring and degrading Assad’s chemical weapons use, and would not include boots on the ground.”
The bill “prevents boots on the ground,” said “Sen. Bob Corker (R- Tenn), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, after it passed. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who voted against the bill, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the CIA.
Former military and CIA weapons of mass destruction operatives and military analysts contacted by the Tribune say that while the language appears to leave open the possibility of U.S. personnel on the ground in Syria, it is unlikely given President Barack Obama’s intentions for a limited conflict that most likely will involve the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from surface ships and submarines as well as fighters and bombers firing “standoff” munitions beyond the range of Syrian air defenses.
The bill “leaves open the possibility that special forces and CIA assets may be deployed on the ground to undertake missions in support of combat operations,” Dylan Lee Lehrke, Armed Forces Analyst, North and South America, for IHS Jane’s. But he said that it would be “less likely” in a scenario where the attack utilizes only standoff weapons.
The goal of a U.S. attack is to respond “to the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government in the conflict in Syria, to deter Syria’s use of such weapons in order to protect the national security interests of the United States and to protect our allies and partners against the use of such weapons, and to degrade Syria’s capacity to use such weapons in the future,” according to the Senate bill.
If the U.S. also uses strike aircraft to directly attack Syrian government forces and infrastructure, “then the deployment of special forces and/or CIA assets on the ground is more likely, as these forces can make airstrikes more effective,” said Lehrke. “Also, the resolution would seem to allow for rescue efforts should any of these aircraft go down. Naturally, I doubt anyone in Congress would oppose rescuing downed pilots.”
Two years ago, during a U.S.-led effort to create a no-fly zone over Libya, a KC-135 crew from MacDill was awarded in part for providing fuel to aircraft flying overwatch to protect a downed fighter crew.
If Obama did order more widespread airstrikes to achieve his stated goal, “these special forces missions would likely focus on intelligence gathering, largely to support those airstrikes,” said Lehrke. “They may also serve in advisory roles to Syrian opposition forces so that these forces could take advantage of the U.S. airstrikes. Previous operations in Afghanistan and Libya have followed this model.”
“There is a certain amount of gray area between conventional U.S. troops on the ground and no U.S. personnel in country at all,” said John Alan Irvin, a former CIA operations officer with experience in the counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “The term ‘combat operations’ is imprecise language and subject to interpretation, which could potentially leave a fuzzy gray area in between the two.”
Still, that doesn’t mean such actions are likely, said Irvin, who spent 10 years with the CIA after 14 years with the Army, including service in Socom.
“There is certainly the potential for conducting unconventional operations, because what special operations forces and U.S. intelligence community covert capabilities bring to the table is very diverse,” said Irvin. “But the problem you will always run into is the potential for blowback. In Syria, there is a tremendous potential for blowback.”
Irvin said that an aerial-only campaign and special operations or CIA missions each face unique challenges when it comes to weapons like the sarin gas Obama says Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad used Aug. 21 in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people.
“Just by the nature of weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical or biological weapons, they are extremely difficult to safely neutralize,” said Irvin. “You can’t just blow them up and even if you try to go in there and physically remove them, that takes a lot of special handling equipment and would be exceedingly difficult. Even securing a site just for the amount of time it would take to remove them would require a lot of personnel, and the fight to take control of and defend a site would probably cross the line into combat operations,”
An aerial campaign alone is also problematic, said Irvin.
“If you bomb a chemical or biological weapons site you always risk the possibility of unintended consequences,” he said. “For example, if you bomb a chemical weapons depot, the first thing you worry about is did you destroy all the chemical agent? You can’t know until you have people on ground. The bigger problem is creating an unintentional release of any chemical or biological agent into a non-combatant population.”
U.S. Special Operations Command declined comment because it has no operational control. A spokeswoman for Soccent did not respond to a request for comment. Centcom is referring questions about military operations in Syria to the Pentagon.