December 02, 2015

CNAS Press Note: U.S. Special Operations in Iraq

By Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas Heras, and Paul Scharre

Washington, December 2 – Following Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s announcement that the United States will deploy more special operations forces to Iraq, CNAS Defense Strategies and Assessments Program Senior Fellow Paul Scharre, CNAS Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg, and CNAS Middle East Security Program Research Associate Nicholas Heras have written a new Press Note, “U.S. Special Operations in Iraq.”

The full press note is below:

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s announcement that the United States will deploy more special operations forces to Iraq to “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders” is a significant step in the U.S. campaign against ISIS (also called ISIL). In addition to aiding Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, this “specialized expeditionary targeting force” will be able to conduct unilateral operations into Syria, Carter said. This counterterrorism capability will help increase the pressure on ISIS, degrading their network and hindering their ability to launch attacks in the region and abroad.
Over time, direct counterterrorism efforts, whether through raids or airstrikes, must be supplemented with capable, legitimate partner forces on the ground that can retake and hold territory from ISIS. But this will require a fundamental shift in the politics on the ground. In western Iraq that means either working directly with the local Sunni tribes or giving them confidence that in the long run that they will not be marginalized by a Shia dominated Iraqi central government with a sectarian agenda. In eastern Syria, the challenge is whether U.S. special operations forces can build upon the relationships they’ve established with Kurdish fighters and, most importantly, bring in a much more significant Sunni and Arab element that can take and hold territory around Raqqa.
Over the long term, U.S. special operations forces can have significant impact in building the capacity of local Sunni Arab partners to not only clear ISIS from the areas it controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq, but also able to bring socio-politically stability to these territories after their liberation. But this approach can only work if it is complemented with an effective strategy to end the multi-sectarian civil war in western Syria that has also become a proxy war embroiling a number of regional and global actors.
Goldenberg, Scharre, and Heras are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

  • Paul Scharre

    Vice President and Director of Studies

    Paul Scharre is the Vice President and Director of Studies at CNAS. He is the award-winning author of Four Battlegrounds: Power in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. His firs...