President Donald Trump's Department of Defense is considering sending conventional ground forces to fight Islamic insurgents including the Islamic State group, in a move that would dramatically broaden the scope of U.S. military operations there, CNN reported Wednesday.
While the United States and a coalition of regional allies are heavily engaged in aerial bombardment of the various Islamic militias that have taken over wide swathes of Syria, and the U.S. has previously deployed special forces and military advisers there, it has never sent regular ground forces like the U.S. Army or Marine Corps in a combat capacity.
Such a move could risk committing U.S. troops to brutal counterinsurgency warfare with a high risk of casualties, as well as inflame regional tensions and further Islamic State's conflict-of-civilizations narrative.
"It's possible that you may see conventional forces hit the ground in Syria for some period of time," a defense official told CNN.
Defense officials characterized the use of ground forces as just one possibility under discussion rather than a plan, according to CNN. Any decision to deploy troops would rest with President Donald Trump, who repeatedly criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the campaign trail but has promised to "bomb the shit" out of the Islamic State.
With so few details available on what the scope of the U.S. ground mission might be, it's unclear what the reaction might be from other governments. Russia-allied Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government's atrocious human rights record marked him as an enemy of former President Barack Obama, recently said he would welcome U.S. ground intervention if it respected Syrian sovereignty.
Another goal of a U.S. ground "presence would be to help reassure Turkey that Kurdish forces are not posing a threat to Ankara's interests," according to CNN. Turkey is hostile toward the U.S.-backed YPG, a group of Kurdish rebels that has established an autonomous zone in northern Syria and is allied with the Kurdish rebel group in Turkey, the PKK. But Turkey's relationship with Assad is strained.
After years of sustained assault from the United States, Russia and regional governments, the territory controlled by Islamic State has diminished considerably. But the insurgent group has never enjoyed military parity with conventional armies and the success of any campaign against it might be measured more in whether it succeeds
"ISIS has been defeated a lot of times," the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Michael Knights told Foreign Policy. "The question isn’t whether you defeat ISIS, it's whether you let ISIS come back in three years’ time."
However, as Foreign Policy reported, the biggest advocate of sending U.S. troops to Syria in Trump's administration was national security adviser Michael Flynn — who recently resigned over a scandal concerning a pre-inaugural phone call with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.