Why the New Syrian Army Failed: Washington and Unconventional Warfare


All public signs point to failure in a key U.S. effort to turn the tide of the brutal Syrian civil war — the training and fielding of a vetted and politically palatable Syrian force to fight the Islamic State. As Nancy Youssef reveals in The Daily Beast, exasperated U.S. officials are trying to adapt in the wake of disastrous setbacks for the Syrian forces back by the United States, including the New Syrian Army and Division 30.  An initial contingent was beaten up badly by rival groups, including al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, not long after it was introduced back into the wild. Washington’s favored Syrians are now in disarray and in a public spat with the Pentagon over its mission.

This should lead us to ask, why can’t the United States conduct effective unconventional warfare any longer?

What is unconventional warfare? The Department of Defense defines it as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power through and with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.”

Recent examples of successful UW campaigns and supporting operations include Afghanistan in 2001 and Northern Iraq in 2003, in which the 5th and 10th Special Forces Groups conducted operations built on a foundation of long established relationships either through the intelligence community (Afghanistan) or directly between Special Forces and indigenous Kurdish elements (in Iraq dating back to 1991 and Operation Provide Comfort).

In the case of Syria, the Obama administration failed to allow strategists and planners to develop and conduct a comprehensive, integrated, and holistic unconventional and political warfare campaign. How do we know this? The terms President Obama used to describe this effort tell the story. Instead of a campaign to support a strategy, the White House directed the military to implement a “program.” Instead of unconventional warfare, the White House chose to call the program “train and equip” and severely limited U.S. personnel from conducting the necessary tasks of an unconventional warfare campaign . This is  evidenced by the sole focus on train and equip without ground assessments and direct advising of indigenous forces, as well as the lack of authorities necessary to develop an underground and auxiliary — fundamental elements of any unconventional warfare campaign. It is also troubling that there are two “train and equip programs,” one being conducted by the military and the other by the CIA, according to media reports.  Most egregious is that the Obama administration started much too late. The right time to start an unconventional warfare campaign against the Assad regime was years ago when it was actually a feasible, acceptable, and suitable course of action. Had an unconventional warfare campaign been effectively executed it may have resulted in the overthrow of Assad through an organized resistance with significant support from the Syrian population. It is true that we cannot know what the outcome might have been, but the situation would likely be better than the one we now face.

As Eliot Cohen and John Gooch wrote in their seminal work, Military Misfortunes, all military failures can be attributed to three causes: failure to learn, failure to adapt, and failure to anticipate. Our military and government agencies have done a lot of learning and adapting over the last fourteen years, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.  However, the future may require better anticipation of threats and opportunities in the area of unconventional and political warfare.  The United States must to be able to both support resistance movements through unconventional warfare campaigns and counter other state and non-state actors conducting their own unique forms of unconventional warfare, including ISIL, Al Qaeda, Russia, Iran, and even the Chinese.

U.S. leaders failed to anticipate three to four years ago the potential for unconventional warfare in Syria to topple Assad and failed to anticipate the rise of the Islamic State. While indecision may be the key to flexibility, American indecisiveness also leads to growing threats and the belief among our adversaries that the United States has ceded the battle space, largely due to a lack of will.

U.S. leaders failed to anticipate Russia’s “new generation warfare” in Ukraine despite having seen evidence of it years ago in Georgia. The same leaders also failed to anticipate what would happen when the United States chose to not enforce President Obama’s stated red line in Syria on chemical weapons and then failed to provide air support when the Syrian resistance had the best chance to achieve an outcome favorable to U.S. interests.

The state of the current train and equip program is yet another chapter in this record of failure and an example of the misuse of special operations methods. Resistance organizations fight for their causes, not for ours. Washington’s demands that its allies and proxies fight U.S.-designated enemies (rather than the enemies a group has determined to be its real, immediate, and existential threats) will hinder future American foreign policy efforts.

Many U.S. policymakers, government officials, and even some senior military leaders are wary of unconventional and political warfare because it is messy, unpredictable, difficult to evaluate and control, potentially violates international law, and has a history fraught with blowback. On the other hand, there are some in the U.S. government who think unconventional warfare can be a silver bullet, but have only sought to employ elements of it in isolation and without a larger strategy.

The fundamental problem with the sorry state of American strategic thought can be summed up by the recent comments of a senior U.S. military leader at an event I attended. This leader discarded unconventional warfare as a potential strategic option because it offers no immediate solutions to today’s security threats. Unconventional warfare and the use of irregular, indigenous forces take presence, patience, and persistence. It is really another form of a war of exhaustion, as Lawrence Freedman alluded to in his recent article, something for which the United States seems to have little or no patience.

Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are critically important in today’s security environment but they are not enough to support our national security strategy. We have to be able to operate in the unconventional and political warfare space. A place to begin for thinking about how to operate in this space is the U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s SOF Support to Political Warfare White Paper that outlines how the U.S. government should consider conducting traditional unconventional warfare, counter-unconventional warfare, and proactive-fashion unconventional warfare. Our enemies are effectively conducting unconventional warfare and we need to as well.

Since there is little hope of those in the White House grasping the importance of unconventional and political warfare in the remaining months of this term, here are three questions for policymakers in the next administration to consider as we try to anticipate the future threat environment:

  1. Are we going to get comfortable operating in the space between peace and war that is described by unconventional and political warfare?
  2. Are we willing to “dostrategy” in that space to achieve our policy objectives?
  3. Are we willing to inform national decision-makers that we have the will and capability to operate in the space between peace and war and conduct our own form of unconventional and political warfare to support our national security strategy or will we cede the initiative for operations in this space to our adversaries?

The answers to these questions will determine if the United States will execute effective national security policies and strategy. If Washington is going to continue to try simply conducting train and equip programs instead of unconventional and political warfare, we are unlikely to achieve our objectives.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel.


Photo credit: Freedom House