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Here's What US Boots on the Ground in Syria Really Means

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter testified today to Congress about the US strategy to counter the Islamic State, opening up the possibility of Special Forces raids against targets in Syria.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that one of the big components of the US campaign against the Islamic State in the future will be raids in Iraq and (presumably) Syria. This comes on the heels of a difficult week for Pentagon messaging, about the death of a Special Forces soldier, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, during a raid accompanying Kurdish forces last week.


In the ensuing debates, people made a lot of hay over whether this actually constituted combat or not, and whether that meant the US was engaged with "boots on the ground," and if that meant that the US was back at war in Iraq. So, when Carter told Congress members Tuesday that American soldiers would be conducting raids in places including Syria, that must have meant that the US was putting those boots back on the ground, and on ground controlled by the Islamic State no less.

But that's isn't the same thing as saying the US is about to launch a major invasion of Syria.

The Pentagon divides what it calls major combat operations (and the rest of us call a war) into six different phases. The military won't say that ground combat never ever occurs in this or that phase, but by and large, most of the ground combat should be confined to Phases II and III, which are, respectively about seizing the initiative and dominating the battlefield (or, if you prefer, grabbing the other guy and then punching him.)

These two phases occur as part of a broader campaign that includes things like deterring a potential bad guy as well as helping mop up and bringing order to the chaos after the war has passed through.

However, as the astute observer might note, that spectrum of stuff wouldn't cover things like, for instance, the raid that got bin Laden and his porn stash. It's not like the US completely occupied much of Pakistan outside of a compound in Abbottabad. Thus, it wouldn't be considered a major combat operation.


This debate first came up when President Obama discussed his plans against IS and was immediately pelted by a slew of questions about "boots on the ground". Now whereas "combat" is a term that can mean several different things, "boots on the ground" or BOTG is hopelessly nonspecific and imprecise.

For instance, if a US (or coalition) pilot was flying along when their plane blew up or got shot down, and a search and rescue team swooped in to pick him up before IS got hold of him and turned him into a gruesome video, would that count as BOTG?

Well, quite literally, yes, because there would be ground, and there would be soldiers, and they would be wearing boots.

Would it count as combat? Well, only if there was fighting that went along with the rescue trip, yes. But would those BOTG and US forces engaged in combat be the same thing as a full-up, across-the-board, giant invasion? Clearly it wouldn't.

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So as a result, Obama then, like Carter now, foundered a little when hit with questions about BOTG and ground combat and their implications.

Now the public announcement that raids are and will be an ongoing component of the campaign against various Syrian Bad Guys is a change, but not necessarily an Earth-shattering one. It's been pretty widely known that a whole bunch of Special Forces guys from several nations have been on location as part of the anti-IS campaign. And while there hasn't been a lot of fanfare (or really, any fanfare at all) about these guys getting into firefights on the ground, it's not crazy to guess that they've been up to some sort of fighting, because, well, that's what Special Forces do.

But previous testimony has only indicated that the troops were in Iraq, while Carter's testimony this morning was, let's say, carefully devoid of any assertion that raids would be limited to Iraq.

So the long and short of it is that yes, the US (and probably other countries) almost certainly have Special Forces guys shooting stuff up not just in Iraq, but Syria too. But that's not the same thing as saying it's time to pull the quagmire alarm or proclaim the start of yet another big US invasion of the region.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr