The Washington Post reported Wednesday that U.S. Marines of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are now deployed in northern Syria to fight the Islamic State. They are likely proximate to the U.S. rebel ally-held town of Ayn Issa, about 50 kilometers north of the Islamic State capital, Raqqah. This is significant news for five reasons.
First, it shows the final battle for Raqqah is imminent. This deployment is too large to mean nothing. With more than 2,100 Marines in complement, each MEU is also endowed with tanks, around 20 helicopters (including Ospreys), close air support jets, and armored assault vehicles. An MEU, in short, really packs a punch. The Pentagon would never amass such military power unless for something significant. That something, as I noted recently, is the seizure of Raqqa.
Second, It shows Trump believes boots on the ground can be positive. Until now, Trump has railed against significant U.S. military ground force actions in the Middle East. This action suggests he has changed his mind. Requesting Trump's authority to send the Marines ashore, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the regional CENTCOM commander, General Votel, would have made clear the risks.
Syria poses a greater risk to U.S. forces than Iraq. The U.S. military's position is less well-entrenched than in its supporting positions around Mosul, and the potential for miscalculation with Assad, Iran or its proxies, or Russia, is significant. That Trump still authorized this action signifies his confidence that this is the right decision. He has come to the right conclusion.
Third, this deployment shows the Pentagon is preparing for the post-Islamic State Syrian environment.
As the Post notes, in order to deter Assad's forces from encroaching on U.S.-allied territory, U.S. Army Rangers are now patrolling around the Syrian city of Manbij. What the Post does not note, however, is that Manbij is approximately 110 kilometers North-West of Raqqah, on Syria's arterial East-to-West M-4 Highway. That makes the city a key line of communication for any force desiring to operate in the area. Thus, by holding Manbij and the aforementioned Ayn Issa (which also sits on the M-4), the U.S. is positioning itself to dominate the battlespace.
These deployments will deny Islamic State forces freedom of movement north of the Euphrates river. In turn, once Raqqah is taken, the U.S. and its allies will be able to push the self-styled caliphate's fighters into the central Syrian wilderness. And that will put U.S. allies and prospective allies – specifically the Sunni-Arab tribes of north-central and eastern Syria - in a stronger position to negotiate a peace deal. If the Syrian military does not have access to these areas, Assad's political influence will be limited. This matters greatly in that as long as Assad dictates Syria's future, Salafi-Jihadist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda will find recruits from thousands of discontented Syrian Sunnis.
Fourth, the deployment shows U.S. special operations forces will play a key role in taking Raqqa, the Islamic State's capitol. General Votel of CENTCOM is the former commander of Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command. As such he is keenly aware of the utility and limitations of Special Operations Forces. But the 11th MEU's presence is a strong sign that special operators will play a key role in Raqqah. That's because for accurate air and artillery strikes, the Marines will need forward observers embedded with Sunni rebel forces attacking Raqqah. Delivering an effective air strike against a specific target in a dense city is, after all, not easy. If we get it wrong, innocent civilians die, the world reacts with fury, and our enemies gain a propaganda victory. Positioning a robust array of military power towards Raqqah means U.S. commanders fully expect to use that power. They know they need U.S. personnel to do so.
Fifth, it shows U.S. global leadership against the Islamic State.
As a frequent critic of President Trump's foreign policy, I would be the first to admit Trump deserves praise here. Instead of hesitating, he is rapidly pursuing a critical objective: seizing the Islamic State's center of gravity (Raqqah). Trump is also showing that he can take risks that serve global interests. This is a big deal. Under President Obama, many western and Arab allies saw America as unwilling to lead. In turn, they refused to follow (either in increased defense spending or by escalating their direct cooperation).
Of course, whatever occurs in the coming days, the capture of Raqqah will end the Islamic State. Trump will also have to address Assad's brutality and its impact in fueling sectarianism. Nevertheless, via the Marines, Trump has taken a big step in the right direction.
Tom Rogan (@TomRtweets) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.