In 'advisory' role, special ops face danger in expanded terror fight

TOPSHOT - Armed men in uniform identified by Syrian Democratic forces as US special operations forces ride in the back of a pickup truck in the village of Fatisah in the northern Syrian province of Raqa on May 25, 2016.

Story highlights

  • The missions can be dangerous
  • Three Americans have been killed recently

(CNN)The first wave of 250 additional U.S. special operations forces have started arriving in northern Syria to help train and assist local Syrian Democratic Forces as they battle ISIS, CNN has learned.

Due to security concerns, the Pentagon would not say exactly how many special forces are now on the ground to support local Syrian Democratic Forces or where they are located. The Syrian forces are fighting ISIS in its self-declared capital of Raqqa and in the Manbij area near the Turkish border.
    But the arrival of the forces -- it was announced several weeks ago that they would be sent --comes as the Obama administration's use of special operations troops in key areas is becoming increasingly dangerous, with three Americans having been killed recently.
    In Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Libya, the Obama administration has embarked on a new era of counter terrorism operations largely out of public view. It's labeled as "advise and assist," but the proximity of American forces to the front lines can vary greatly -- and sometimes be quite close.
    The effort involves small teams of special operations forces helping local forces take on terrorists in a number of countries, ranging from ISIS to al-Shabaab to Boko Haram. U.S. advisers are also behind the scenes in the battle for Fallujah in Iraq.
    "I think one of the things we are seeing unfold is sort of a new model for how the U.S. begins to shrink terrorist safe havens in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa," said Paul Scharre, director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for New American Security, a think tank.
    Scharre points out that until now there have largely been two basic military options:
    • Either sending in tens of thousands of combat forces, along the lines of the U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, although there is now a limited appetite for another large conflict.
    • Or conducting mostly hands-off warfare like drone strikes against groups in Yemen and Somalia -- with limited effectiveness due to little influence on the ground.
    "What you are seeing in all of these places -- in Syria, Iraq and Libya -- is a different model of the U.S. not really taking on a combat role directly, but assisting other partners on the ground in their fight against ISIS," Scharre added.
    The Pentagon insists military advisers and trainers are not engaged in what it calls active combat. But on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, President Barack Obama left no doubt about the dangers, noting recent deaths on the battlefield: "Three Americans have given their lives in combat on our behalf."
    In the last few months, Navy SEAL Charles Keating was killed in Iraq when his advisory team and local fighters were overrun by ISIS. "That firefight that he was involved with was one that occurred within seconds of there being absolutely nothing going on in that particular location," said Cedric Leighton, a retired Air Force intelligence officer.
    Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler also was killed in Iraq while working with Kurdish forces to free hostages and Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed in Afghanistan on an advisory mission.
    Leighton said the dangers are likely to continue, as U.S. military advisers have to be seen as tough, reliable partners by the local forces.
    "It's impossible for them to do their job if they are not seen as being willing to fight," said Leighton.