Small Wars Journal

SF Green Beret Advisor Killed in Action in Syria, by a Russian Airstrike

Fri, 11/20/2015 - 12:52pm

SF Green Beret Advisor Killed in Action in Syria, by a Russian Airstrike

Dave Betz

This may be the sensational media headline in the near future.  DOD continues to struggle over the strategy to fight ISIS in Syria and with the authorization of up to 50 SOF advisors into Syria, US SOF will have Boots on the Ground in Syria in some capacity.  Are we willing as a nation, to risk US SOF and Russian SOF to operate in or near the same battle space?  What is a viable strategy with only 50 SOF advisors to combat ISIS in Syria and with the presence of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria?

Line of Effort One: A train, advise and assist program with Sunni Tribes in Syria modeled after the Iraq War Desert Protector to Al Anbar Awakening Program.

In the dark days of Iraq, specifically the Al-Anbar province, US Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha’s (ODA) began to train small Sunni Tribes to conduct small scale Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN) in their local area.  The program began with ODAs teaching Tribal members and former re-patriated insurgents; basic light infantry tactics, local force protection TTPs (protecting the populace), and defensive strong points (control the populace). The walk, crawl, and run training methodology was  conducted through US Army Special Forces advisors speaking Arabic, knowing Sunni tribal customs and building rapport with them.  The training culminated into small-scale Special Forces  advised Tribal forces conducting combat operations in the vicinity of Al Qiam, Iraq to fight the insurgent network. 

This specific training paradigm is called ‘By, With and Through’.  Train the Partner Force to meet their tactical objectives, By culturally attuned advisors, With the Tribal force and Though the Tribal force.  The mission was called the Desert Protector program.  The program grew rapidly; more tribes bought into the strategy and eventually quelled the insurgent influence and foreign fighter flow in the Al Qaim area of western Iraq.  The Desert Protector program in time enabled and transcended into the large scale Al Anbar Awakening.  The result was a “partnering of tribes” (Knarr, p.78) to fight the Insurgency of the Al Anbar Providence.  

The majority of the ISIS -held area in western Syria is historic Sunni Tribal Areas.  The inhabitants do not think of themselves as just Syrians, but to their patriarchal Tribal/Sunni affiliations.  SOF Forces have worked extensively with the Tribal Sunnis in the Al-Anbar Providence and other areas of Iraq.  Many Special Forces senior NCOs and Officers have longing relationships with Sunni Tribal Sheiks, soldiers and officers.   Training and advising Tribal Arabs is nothing new, it is common place.

US Army Special Forces “Green Berets” have demonstrated time and time again that they have the critical combat advisor skills; language, culture expertise and small unit tactics, to conduct Advise and Assist operations in the most austere operational environments.  The Montagnards of Vietnam and the fighters of the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan are excellent examples of the application and success of US Army Special Forces combat advisor skills. 

The same Desert Protector/Al Anbar Awakening methodology and indirect approach is a viable line of effort to the US strategy in Syria.  Working By, With and Through Sunni Syrian Tribes, that have the similar local and regional objectives to combat ISIS can be a valid line of effort to counter ISIS expansion. Partnering with Sunni Tribes that live and know the Area of Operations should be a focused effort to combat ISIS in Syria by the United States.   

One mission critical component is the establishment of a “No Fly Zone” over the Area of Operations of the SOF forces conducting Advise and Assist Operations in Syria.  The “No Fly Zone” would protect US SOF forces from possible Russian air strikes. If there is not a “No Fly Zone” this could be the unfortunate headline:  A SF “Green Beret” Advisor is killed in action in Syria, by a Russian airstrike.

Line of Effort Two: An Unconventional/Hybrid Warfare Program into the ISIS held Sunni areas of Syria.

Nested with the Tribal Train, Advise and Assist operations with protected overhead “No Fly Zone”, the Department Of Defense should commit, develop and support a robust Unconventional Warfare (UW) or Hybrid Warfare campaign in western Syria.  The campaign should be focused to combat ISIS in their occupied and held areas.  Take the fight to them.  Sabotage, Subversion, capture and kill of their C2 nodes by a UW Underground and Guerrilla force.  Small-scale isolated raids and coordinated attacks can also be conducted by a UW Guerilla Force.   UW operations can be supported by an established Sunni Tribal Auxiliary that has the resources and situational awareness to reduce the compromise of UW operations.  The recruitment, development and training of a Sunni Guerilla, Underground and Auxiliary to conduct UW operations against ISIS and can be conducted in the protected areas of a No Fly Zone, the non-ISIS held areas of western Syria and even in Iraq.  Guerillas or members of the Underground could infiltrate into ISIS held areas of operations and conduct UW operations, then return to their safe havens of the protected Tribal areas.


These two lines of effort could “awaken” the Sunni Tribes of Syria to counter ISIS. The risk to US SOF forces is extremely mitigated by the establishment of a “No Fly Zone”.  The zone would protect the US SOF advisors; reduce risk of Russian/Iranian/US military engagements.  The zone would also protect the Tribal Sunni populace protective force and the Guerilla/Underground fighters. 

Russian military operations and influence may expand from their center of gravity in around Bassel Al-Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria. The expansion may increase the chance contact between Russian/Iranian military advisors and US SOF Forces. 

By establishing a protective overhead “No Fly Zone” and a defined (FLOT) or buffer zone between US SOF/ Russian/ Iranian Forces would mitigate a proxy Cold War, evolving into a historic strategic blunder or ‘Hot War’.  Most importantly, there is less a chance that a “Green Beret has met his fate” or the terrible headline of:  A SF Green Beret Advisor is killed in action in Syria, by a Russian airstrike.


Knarr, W. The 2005 Iraqi Sunni Awakening: The Role of the Desert Protector Program. JSOU Report 15-4. JSOU Press. OCT 15

About the Author(s)

Dave Betz was assigned to 5th SFG (A) and served as the Senior Weapons Sergeant, Intelligence Sergeant, Operations Sergeant, First Sergeant, S-3 SGM and Company SGM.  He was the Senior Enlisted Advisor for USSOCOM Spe­­cial Operations Knowledge and Futures, CSM for 1/5 SFG (A), SOTF-North Iraq and the SOCCENT Cultural Engagement Group (CEG).  CSM David Betz retired from the Army as the Joint Special Operations University Command Senior Enlisted Leader.  He currently is a contractor in the private sector.  Dave Betz’s education includes:  Ranger School Class 12-84, the Special Forces Qualification Course, and the Keystone Course.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College and a Masters of Arts degree in Business Management and Leadership from Liberty University.  He has served in numerous campaigns and deployments to include:  Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, Haiti, Operations Iris Gold, Desert Spring, Desert Fox in Kuwait, Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom I, II, III and V.



Wed, 11/25/2015 - 8:22am

In reply to by jackbrown

<blockquote>It seems clear to me that from a national interest perspective, what the US needs to do is write off the rebels....</blockquote>
That does seem to be where we're driven. We didn't start the Syrian revolution, and for awhile, we were smart enough not to take sides in a very mixed-up fight. Now we've painted ourselves into a corner by insisting any outcome include his departure, which is just prolonging the misery in non-ISIL Syria, and diverting effort from the greater need to turn ISIL back into a homeless group of criminals instead of a proto-state. The rebels lost this one; Darth Vader remains on the Death Star. The neocons will go crazy, but this wasn't our fight to begin with. We should focus on preventing Iraq from becoming a U.S.-funded Iranian protectorate.


Mon, 11/23/2015 - 3:13pm

While interesting and informed, the author's views here seem overly optimistic with regard to the potential for SOF advisors to turn the situation around in Syria. What is needed to drive ISIS out of Syria (and most critically, out of Deir Ezzour with its oil wells) it seems to me is very large infantry formations with close air support.

Those infantry units are going to either be rebel armies (meaning basically Nusra/Al-Qaeda and Ahrar Al-Sham, both pretty grim jihadi outfits) or they are going to be Syrian national army and Hezbollah units (who we know are backed up by Iraqi militias and Iranian troops nowadays).

A few Kurds, mostly from across the border, are not going to do the trick no matter how many SOF advisors are helping them out.

In short, the idea of a no-fly zone seems remarkably out of touch with what really needs to happen. No-Fly-Zone basically means 'No Russians'; it's not like ISIS has ever been able to get off the ground, after the Syrian Air Force knocked down those two trainers in what was probably ISIS's one and only attempt at trying for the skies. So what the author wants to stop from flying is the Russian Air Force, which has been doing fine work demolishing the gains of the various jihadi armies for the past month or so. What is the point of that?

It seems clear to me that from a national interest perspective, what the US needs to do is write off the rebels, grit our teeth, and hitch our wagon to the Russian train, which unlike ours (except the neat little Kurdish advance in the NE last week), has actually left the station.

To be honest, I'm not sure what this would actually involve, since the idea of military cooperation with Hezbollah is pretty ludicrous, and with Iranian RGs almost as improbable. Probably divide up the ISIS territory into spheres of influence,tell the russians 'you can bomb the hell out of eastern aleppo and raqqa, we'll take care of deir ezzour and the bits up next to the turkish border.' Or something like that.

I have been an advocate of a no-fly zone for some time. I believe it would mitigate the unfathomable humanitarian disaster, reduce the refuge flow (and its strategic effects), and in many ways that are beyond a quick explanation here, enable our support to the resistance. I agree with the author that the fly zone is a critical missing component of our strategy. A number of other strategists, both senior military and civilian, have recommended the same. I realize Russian involvement in combat operations complicates that decision now, but it still needs to be done.

I'm perplexed as to why we haven't done so, since we're spending billions in our counter-ISIL efforts, and it increasingly appears to many of us the current strategy won't work without one. So my question for the SWJ community is what are the arguments against establishing a no fly zone? Is this a case pride overcoming reason? Are some leaders too proud to admit they were wrong and adjust? They shouldn't be, GEN Marshal admitted he was wrong during WWII more than once and adjusted course. Strategy should never be fixed, it must be adjusted as required as we learn what works and what doesn't. Bullheadedness that results in dogged determination can be a good thing in a conflict (Churchill), but if it results in blindly following an ineffective strategy (Hitler) it is self-defeating.