TSI Analysis: World leaders meet to discuss Syria as U.S. decides to send in Special Forces

World leaders from 19 countries met today in Vienna to discuss ways to bring an end to the devastating war in Syria. On the table is a plan for a ceasefire in Syria within 4-6 months followed by a transitional government that includes Assad and opposition. But how realistic is such a proposal ?

The talks included both Russia and – for the first time – Iran, which means that President Bashar al-Assad’s interests were well represented. Although they might find that the Syrian regime is not in lock step with its main backers if they agree to a plan that names a definite end date for Assad’s rule. Last weekend Bashar al-Assad reiterated that he would take part in an election, but only after the “terrorist” forces are defeated. The Syrian government’s broad definition of terrorists includes anyone who opposes the Assad regime or lives in an area outside of its control. Elections while the Assad regime is still in power – which Iran has proposed – will be a very tough sell to the opposition. Syrian elections have never met the free and fair standards that the West tends to associate with the electoral process; instead they have served primarily to rubberstamp the rule of the Assad regime. The last presidential elections, held in 2014, were a sad spectacle of fraud, manipulation, and disenfranchisement. An even bigger challenge to enacting a transition plan agreed upon by world powers will come from the Syrian opposition. No representatives of the Syrian political or military opposition were included in the meeting, and the current plans being discussed run contrary to the positions expressed in recent statements by both the Syrian Coalition and armed opposition groups, who continue to maintain that Assad cannot play a role in the transitional process or in Syria’s future.

Even as the Vienna talks were taking place today the situation on the ground continued to spiral out of control, making prospects for a peace deal seem ever more remote. While world leaders were starting their meetings this morning, the Syrian government launched an attack that some are calling a massacre on a crowded market in the besieged city of Douma; causing around 50 deaths and injuring over 100. A day earlier, Russian air strikes targeted the only hospital in the same city. Russia continues to expand its operations: on Thursday there were reports of Russian air strikes in the southern province of Daraa for the first time. Russian attacks have killed almost 600 people in the past month, more than ¼ of which were civilians.

In another critical development, the U.S. government confirmed that it plans to send American Special Operations forces into northern Syria to help local (largely Kurdish) forces battle ISIS. This is a significant and meaningful development in the U.S. administration’s Syria policy. When these Special Operations forces arrive, there will be Russian, Iranian, and American military forces all fighting a different (but occasionally overlapping) set of enemies in Syria. They will share the battlefield with Syrian armed forces, the National Defense Forces, Hezbollah, a number of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and a plethora of Syrian armed opposition groups.

Sending any American forces into this maelstrom is incredibly risky.

For one thing, the Americans will quickly become high value targets for a majority of the players currently on the ground. While ISIS and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra clearly fall into the category of potential threats to American soldiers in Syria, at this point other more moderate armed opposition groups may as well. Today many Syrians believe that the U.S. has joined forces with Assad, Russia, and Iran against them. As evidence of this allegiance Syrians note U.S. aircraft sharing airspace with Russian and Syrian planes that more often than not target moderate opposition groups and civilians. The U.S. has also killed civilians in some of its anti-ISIS airstrikes. The U.S. government has acknowledged few of these incidents and apologized for none. Additionally, the U.S. recently suspended its train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian opposition and instead started directly arming the Kurds, which it views as the most effective anti-ISIS force. Many in the Syrian opposition believe that the Kurds and their partners in the northwest have been cooperating on some level with the Assad regime. Syrians also recently watched the U.S. ink a nuclear deal with Iran and an airspace deconfliction agreement with Russia. All of these developments have deeply damaged America’s reputation among the Syrian opposition, and being based in Kurdish-held territory may not be enough to prevent attacks against American forces on the ground.

While less likely, there is also the possibility that one of the parties with air power (Russia or Syria), may also take this opportunity to attempt to target the American Special Forces. This possibility seems more remote, but with the high level of brinksmanship exhibited by both Russia and Syria thus far (Syria shot down a U.S. drone in March, and Russian planes have intercepted several U.S. drones), it cannot be completely ruled out. American forces on the ground will undoubtedly have American air support, so such an attempt could potentially result in air-to-air combat, which both the Russians and the Americans are equipped for.

Another consideration is that the dispatch of American forces to Syria may signal to some of the more vociferous anti-Assad countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia – both disgruntled American allies – that they should follow suit. Both countries have long desired that the U.S. take stronger action in Syria and relations have been strained as a result of the Obama administration’s failure to do so. Last month, the Turkish parliament extended a mandate to allow its military forces to deploy to Syria, keeping the option on the table for another year. Also last month, Saudia Arabia’s Foreign Minister told reporters that Assad must step down or face military action. Subsequently, the U.S. announced increased arms support to the moderate opposition, doubtless a concession to the Saudis necessary to get them to the talks in Vienna with their arch-nemesis Iran. With the increasing pace of escalation in the conflict since the start of the Russian intervention, forceful action from the Saudis or Turks remains a real possibility.

While the U.S. government may feel optimistic about its diplomatic prowess after a series of successful negotiations with Iran and Russia, the current Vienna talks are likely to bring this winning streak to an end. Syrians, and the world, will be watching intently as the parties attempt to shore up support for their positions before the next round of talks in two weeks. But for now there is little evidence that the results of the Vienna meeting will amount to anything more than words on paper, or that they are somehow different than the many failed negotiations that have come before.

Update [ Dec. 18, 2015]: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter confirmed during a press conference that U.S. special forces had entered Syria, and “their mission was to identify and link up with local forces, in this case especially Syrian-Arab forces, that were willing to fight ISIL.” He went on to describe the foray as “essentially an exploratory mission and they found what we had been hoping they would find, and I have every anticipation that by doing more.”