The Arab Spring ignited a firestorm of protest in Syria in 2011 that has escalated into an all-out civil war, pitting Syrian rebels against their own country’s government.
The inferno has not slowed since, resulting in a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions as an estimated 22 million people — over half of the country’s population — has been forced to flee their homes.
In an effort to alleviate the crisis, this past week President Barack Obama announced his intention to deploy special operations troops into Syria.
President Obama’s actions mark a change in United States strategy concerning Syria.
This shift has been dubbed by Aaron David Miller, a vice president with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “a kind of Goldilocks policy—not too hot and not too cold,” keeping the U.S. involved but still at a distance.
The deployment of special operations forces is the first open-ended mission to be conducted by ground troops in the region.
Since Sept. 1 of last year, the United States has been conducting airstrikes against the strongholds of the radical Islamic group ISIS, which has been attempting to exert its influence and extremist views in Syria in the midst of the conflict.
Thus far, President Obama has avoided putting “boots on the ground” in Syria.
Still, the policy of keeping the United States from direct combat will be continued.
The special operations force being deployed is purported to consist of fewer than 50 troops, whose role will be restricted to aiding in advising and organizing the Syrian rebels.
Escalation of United States involvement corresponds with two important developments.
Firstly, this past Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry reached an agreement in Vienna with 19 global and regional powers to attempt to achieve a cease-fire in Syria as well as creation of a new constitution followed by new elections.
Obama’s special operations forces may be an effort to bolster these goals for Syria’s future.
Secondly, escalation of United States involvement in Syria has followed increasing Russian interference in the region.
After weeks of building up forces in Syria, Russia began launching airstrikes against rebel targets in September of this year.
Russia’s actions are likely motivated by its commercial and military interests in the region, generating Russian support for the Assad regime.
Although United States troops are intended to remain stationed in the makeshift group headquarters of the Syrian rebels, Russian airstrikes may pose a potential threat to United States troops.
These airstrikes typically occur hours away from the location of ISIS strongholds and seem to target Syrian rebels.
To prevent Russia from striking where United States troops are stationed, the United States may be forced to communicate with Moscow.
Moving forward with policy concerning Syria, the United States faces many uncertainties.
These uncertainties include the impact of Russia’s actions as well as the feasibility of achieving the goals set forward by Secretary of State John Kerry.
It is unclear if plans for a new Syrian constitution are in accordance with the rebels’ goals.
The status of the Assad regime is uncertain.
It remains a point of contention between the U.S. and its European and Persian Gulf allies, which demand Assad step down, and Russia and Iran, which continue to support the current regime.
In the face of all of these uncertainties, President Obama’s deployment of special operations forces to Syria may be a stepping stone to escalating United States involvement in the war-torn Middle East.