Normally, the goals of a combined U.S.-GCC unconventional warfare campaign in Syria would be the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a government friendly to U.S. and Gulf Sunni interests. However, policymakers should recognize that unconventional warfare campaigns are fragile projects with no assurance of success. They can take years to run their course with plenty of opportunity for embarrassments along the way. The Syrian war is proving to be just as dirty as any other modern proxy war, with both sides apparently guilty of war crimes. Rather than committing to the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, an elusive task that could result in an unpleasant spiral of escalation, the U.S. should limit itself to the goal of growing coalition irregular warfare expertise.
But to improve the odds of achieving this limited goal, policymakers should expand U.S. participation beyond its current limits. They should not rule out providing lethal assistance to the rebels not available through other partners. U.S. special forces advisers and trainers should be allowed to visit rebel sanctuary camps in Turkey and Syria. Finally, U.S. policymakers should consider the limited use of air power -- for example, drones for intelligence-gathering and close air support. Since the principal U.S. goal would be the buildup of GCC irregular warfare capacity, GCC intelligence and special forces officers should have the lead, with U.S. officers supporting them. This approach would do the most to build overall alliance special operations capacity while limiting U.S. exposure and risk.
Some will no doubt criticize this approach as an exploitation of the humanitarian disaster in Syria to allow the U.S. and its allies to refine some unpleasant techniques. A historical analogy would be the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, another very ugly civil war, which Europe's great powers used to tune up their military doctrines before World War II. By this view, intervention would only accelerate Syria's suffering and make the United States an accessory to a dirty war.
However, to the extent U.S. intervention in support of its Sunni allies shortens the war and hastens the end of the Assad regime, it will save lives and reduce the suffering in Syria. U.S. intervention cannot assure such a result and U.S. policymakers should not commit U.S. prestige to such an outcome. But as we saw in the Balkans in the early 1990s, standing aside while a civil war rages has its own moral problems. By contrast, when outside adviser assistance to the Croatian and Bosnian militias was finally allowed, the fighting soon ended. No one can guarantee a similar result in Syria. On the other hand, we can see what Syria is going through right now. Although ending the war should not be a goal of the very limited intervention discussed here, the odds of ending the fighting on favorable terms would seem to be higher than with no intervention at all.
Furthermore, irregular warfare is the future for which the U.S. and its allies must prepare. When Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman -- the most hawkish elected officials in Washington -- rule out the use of conventional ground troops, policymakers should conclude that they have a depleted toolbox for addressing future security challenges. With the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh, policymakers will be highly reluctant to employ conventional ground forces in future contingencies. Among the few remaining tools will be intelligence and special operations officers pursuing irregular warfare techniques alongside allies. Supporting the Sunni allies in Syria will sharpen irregular warfare skills, improve operational relationships, and prepare the United States and its allies for future contingencies. And it may even end the war and save some lives.