Just to be clear, everyone who's been paying attention knows there have been US boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq for quite some time.
When Obama announced last month that Washington would be deploying "less than 50" Spec Ops to Syria, the public's reaction (as exemplified by the painful presser with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest) seemed to indicate that everyone had forgotten that just five months ago, US commandos executed a raid in Syria that purportedly killed Islamic State’s “gas minister” (and yes, that’s just as absurd as it sounds). And then there was the Peshmerga-assisted raid on an ISIS prison in the northern Iraqi town of Huwija that resulted in the first US combat death in the country since 2006. Footage from that operation was plastered all over the news in a desperate attempt to prove the US is still serious about fighting terror.
Additionally, Washington has made no secret of the now defunct “train and equip” program for Syrian rebels - clearly, the American public hadn’t thought very hard about who was doing the on-the-ground “training.”
Finally, there’s no telling how many CIA operatives and black ops have been running around in Syria assisting Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s proxy armies from the very beginning.
As Anthony Cordesman, a security and intelligence analyst for past US administrations told The Guardian, no boots on the ground "doesn't mean every damn boot."
Well just moments ago, Ash Carter announced that the US would deploy an "expeditionary targeting force" to Iraq. Here are the details via Bloomberg:
- Specialized U.S. “expeditionary targeting force” to assist Iraqi, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, puts “even more pressure on” Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tells House Armed Services Cmte.
- “These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter Says
- Raid “creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, and more momentum”
- Iraq raids “will be done at the invitation of Iraqi government/ focused on defending its borders and building the ISF’s own capacity
- Expeditionary force ‘‘ will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into to Syria,’’ Carter says in statement
- NOTE: Carter statement does not indicate how many special operations force will be deployed in ‘‘expeditionary targeting force”
The announcement comes as lawmakers and former defense officials call for a greater US commando presence to fight ISIS (the same ISIS that US commandos armed and trained along with the Saudis, Turkey, and Qatar). “The goal is to start a chain reaction of intelligence-driven raids that increase in frequency and expand in scope over time. The metric becomes can you disrupt and dismantle the network faster than the enemy can repair and regenerate it” Robert Martinage, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations under Obama said this week.
As Bloomberg noted on Monday, "the model would be the commando raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. The tactics, honed in hundreds of raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, were developed by groups such as Task Force 714 in Iraq, which joined the intelligence resources of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency with Navy Seal Team Six and Army Delta Force commandos."
“A group of 50 is fine for what they’re doing so far," Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said in an interview with CBS late last month, referencing the Spec Ops in route to Syria. "But it’s not going to solve the problem.”
No, it's not. Of course it's not clear that the US and its regional allies want to "solve the problem" as much as they want to simply "contain" it. As Sergei Lavrov put it, "apparently, it’s a kind of a ‘honey is sweet, but the bee stings’ situation: they want IS to weaken Assad as soon as possible to make him leave somehow, but at the same time they don’t want to overly strengthen IS, which may then seize power" (more here).
So in short, expect more helmet cam footage designed to drum up public support for an increased troop presence in Iraq and eventually in Syria because as last week's events clearly demonstrate, the stakes are now quite high.
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On a damp afternoon in Iraqi Kurdistan, a 29-year-old peshmerga fighter named Peshawa pulls out his Samsung Galaxy mobile phone, flicks hurriedly through his library until he finds the video he wants, and presses play.
The clip, filmed just after dawn on 11 September, shows four tall and western-looking men in the heat of a battle against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. “These are the Americans,” says Peshawa in a secretive tone.
One is crouched behind a machine gun firing round after round from the top of a fortified mound; another lies on his front a few feet away, legs outstretched and taking aim at the enemy with a long rifle. A third wields a long-lens camera taking photo after photo, and the last stands back, apparently overseeing the others during the combat south-west of the city of Kirkuk.
The footage, Peshawa says, is evidence that US special forces have been waging a covert war on the frontline in Iraq for months. Such a claim could alter the feverish debate over whether Barack Obama should move farther and faster against Isis in the wake of the Paris attacks.
In another video, dated 11 June, an American soldier wearing the fatigues and insignia of a Kurdish counter-terrorism unit can be seen walking alongside two dozen peshmerga in the aftermath of a seven-hour firefight with Isis militants in the village of Wastana and Saddam settlement, according to the peshmerga who filmed the video.
The American special forces arrived in Kirkuk earlier this year to train, advise and support peshmerga forces fighting Isis. According to a Kurdish peshmerga commander, about 30 American special forces operatives set up an operations room in the city.
A senior peshmerga commander, who did not wish to be named, said: “In February, for the first time, four American snipers came to south Kirkuk because we had lost several peshmerga to the Isis snipers.
“The peshmerga snipers were weak and before we could hit a single Isis sniper, we would lose a few men. Therefore we desperately needed American snipers. They had taken part in all the fights in south Kirkuk and they had really good snipers.”