29 October 2019

American SOFs caught between the fear of classified information leaks and the sentiment of shame for the sudden abandonment of their Kurdish partners in Syria

Daniel Ilie

Some time ago, a D.S.M. reader made me aware in a message on social media that, according to a “Military Times” report, American special operations forces (SOF) are concerned about the possibility that some classified information they exchanged with members of the Syrian Democrat Forces (SDF), shared during instruction, counselling and assistance missions carried out in Syria in the past five years, could be given Russian forces in Syria and the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Image source: Mediafax

In my answer, I told him that the concerns seem to be justified, at least from a sideliner view and without exactly knowing the details of how the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) planned this mission to coordinate the military efforts necessary the defeat the so-called Islamic Caliphate (ISIS), which also has an important security assistance component.

The CJTF-OIR’s mission is to defeat ISIS in the designated areas in Syria and Iraq, and also to create conditions for following regional security operations in Syria, as the Coalition partners with the Syrian Democrat Forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition, which are concentrated on the fight against ISIS. The Syrian territories controlled by the so-called Caliphate, in which the Coalition will carry out and synchronize strikes of both their own forces and of partners which are directly fighting ISIS do not include, however, the country’s western areas.

Eventually, the military victory over ISIS will be achieved by indigenous forces, the Coalition will accomplish its mission with their help and an improved regional stability will be obtained through these partners, according to the CJTF-OIR’s mission statement.

Looking at the design of the CJTF-OIR’s military campaign, we will observe that it was designed to take place on four phase and three lines of effort (a line which ties together all military and non-military actions carried out by a military force, for the purpose of establishing a set of condition for accomplishing the mission). To support the second life effort, “Facilitating the sustainability of the Syrian partners’ military defense and security capacity”, the coalition carried out instruction, outfitting, counselling and assistance mission for these partners.

Regarding the base missions in which SOFs are used, these activities represent a security assistance task. These military structures formed out of operators fluent in several languages of interest, with a thorough situational cultural knowledge, are one of the best options when it comes to designating a military force which will carry out such missions. American SOFs were among the capabilities nominated to carry out security assistance missions, within a partnership which has been lasting for more than four years, with the former Kurdish militias from the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) organization, which were re-named into the Syrian Democrat Forces during the Obama Administration, and were considered the only ones capable of fighting ISIS on equal terms in Syria.

A complex problem in this type of missions is to ensure the operation’s security (OPSEC) and prevent leaks of critical information, including after the mission and the eventual partnership ends, especially as such operations are not necessarily secret or clandestine.

Military theory states that joint forces, in this case the coalition, are usually under permanent observation both in their deployment bases during peace time, instruction and training activities, drills, various peace time manoeuvres and, of course, during their actual deployment in operation zones where actual military actions are carried out. The enemy’s intelligence specialists continuously analyse and interpret the collected information (both classified and unclassified), putting it head to head in order to discover critical information (intentions, capabilities, activities) and to predict the joint force’s next course of action as accurately as possible.

In these conditions, why would collecting information on some tactics, techniques and procedures, the technical-tactical characteristics of some sensible pieces of military equipment and even the names of some SOF operators, which US-assisted SDF had access to, would be exempted from this type of rules?

Granting security assistance presumes that an important number of officials of a host nation, members of the partnering forces, as well as a part of the population will be kept informed with some of the activities carried out by the Coalition’s military personnel. Furthermore, insurgent or criminal groups will try to recruit or infiltrate, usually, informers into these structures. Therefore, there are enough reasons for the members of the US SOF community to be concerned by eventual critical information leaks which would possibly have negative effects on the protection of the force and the mission, as they abruptly withdrew from Syria and abandoned their Kurdish partners, and the latter could even be forced to share such information with Russian forces in Syria and the forces of Bashar al-Assad.

As is the case with any different type of mission or military operation, you have to foresee and plan even before executing security assistance missions, from the earliest stages of planning, those security measures necessary to prevent information leaks on your own or friendly forces, including after the operation ends.

It is, however, very true that imagining efficient strategies and measures is very difficult in this case, because any long-term plan is inevitable accompanied by a vast degree of uncertainty. Especially when it regards working with the human factor. And that plan must be permanently revised to account for the frequent and fast changes of the operational environment, determined in this case especially by unpredictable decisions of your own leadership.

The Americans must have learned a long time ago some lessons referring to the dangers associated with the withdrawal, more or less hasty, of their forces and the need to protect critical information after participation in military actions. For example, following the actions to support the Haqqani wing of Mujahideen Muslims in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989), these fighters turned against their former supporters after the US attacked Afghanistan in 2001 and transformed into a wing of the new Taliban insurgency. Some of them certainly received all types of information, more or less critical, as well as sensible military equipment.

Apparently, according to the latest information surfaced in the virtual space and statements made on Twitter by the CJTF-OIR’s spokesman, on the background of growing tensions in Northern Syria, the coalition continues to apply some OPSEC measures, considering force protection its number one priority. Therefore, coalition forces have continued their deliberate withdrawal from North-Eastern Syria towards Western Iraq, recently evacuating forward operational bases in the Lafarge cement factory between Kobani and Ain Issa, in Raqqa and al-Tabqah. Amonge these measures, there were also attempts to diminish tensions with Turkish forces, as Kurdish forces agreed to withdraw from the border, destroy their fortifications and returns some heavy weaponry.

Immediately after the joint operational command centre was decommissioned, and the personnel and essential equipment evacuated from the FOB created in the Lafarge cement factory, two US F-15Es carried out a successful pre-planned air attack on the premises, destroying it and blowing up a Coalition munitions deposit (probably deemed surplus to requirements following the sudden, but apparently planned retreat).

Based on some acts which took place between 2011 and 2014, when Lafarge decided to maintain its commercial activities in Syria amidst the civil war, this company was accused of complicity to war crimes, crimes against humanity, funding a terrorist organization, deliberately endangering human life as well as practicing forced labour. The company was suspected to have bought base materials from various Jihadist groups, including ISIS, and also of negotiating the safe passage of its workers and products in exchange for compensation worth EUR13 million.

Over all of this, the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) appears to be preparing to send hundreds of additional American troops to help secure the bases in which US SOFs are operating together with their Syrian Kurd partners and, for the moment, communications with the SDF will continue.

If the Coalition’s withdrawal will be rapid and total, and the initial plans to support the SDF with military and logistical capabilities – including after the defeat of the so-called Caliphate – will be abandoned, this could result in the transition to the campaign fourth phase, which aims to support and stabilize by aiding the “adequate authorities” in Syria, being cancelled. In the end, this campaign plan might need to be revised after it was not wholly carried out.

During all this time, several voices in SOF community are starting to express their sentiments of shame regarding the imminent abrupt abandonment of their main Kurdish allies in Syria, who were “left to be slaughtered” according to the SDF commander.

While the Kurds were defeating ISIS, US SOF commanders were realizing the fact that they discovered a valuable ally in the fight against the terrorist group. Thousands of Kurdish fighters were instructed by American SOF in battlefield tactics, as well as research and aid missions. The research teams learned to identify the deployment locations of ISIS members and transmit them to the Coalition’s operational command centre in order to plan air attacks, while SDF members on the frontline could be observed using iPads and laptops to exchange information with their American partners.

It seems that in the past two years, the coordination between American SOFs and Kurdish fighters had intensified, and the mutual trust each side placed in the other was very high, with the partners complementing each other, as the collaboration between Kurds on the ground and coalition air support brought enormous results. American SOFs instructed Kurdish anti-terrorist units to carry out tactical raids on ISIS hideouts and offered them the necessary information to plan these missions.

One of the former commanders of the US Special Operations Command, Admiral McRaven, recently said that failing to value what makes an organization big opens up a suitable pit for it to fall into, accusing President Trump of being unable to appreciate the significance of such values. He raised the question of the US could ever ensure the trust of its Allies if US promises will be empty and what will continue to inspire men and women to enlist in the US Army.

Instead of conclusions

After they received the order to withdraw from Syria, several American SOF officers stated that they feel deep remorse towards the order to abandon your allies. I tend to believe them, because I know that they are instructed to construct partnership relations based on mutual trust, understanding and respect, in order to influence the other sides decisions and actions when it is planning assistance and security tasks. In this sense, SOF advisors need to prove that they can be counted to do, and will do, exactly what they promise.

Abandoning the partnership with the SDF following a political order might have a negative long-term effect, namely a decrease of trust in partnerships, proving once again that alliances can be established and broken up, even without obvious logic or morality, forcing the Kurds to sign deals with Russian forces in Syria or forces the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

Translated by Ionut Preda