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Is Sending U.S. Troops To Assist Syrian Rebels Overdue?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Since he came into office, President Obama has been trying to extricate the United States from the large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the same time, waging a counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaida, its affiliates and now ISIS, using drones that keep Americans out of harm's way. The administration's reluctance to use military ground forces has kept the U.S. out of Syria until now. This past week, the White House announced that the U.S. will send as many as 50 Special Operations Forces to Syria to advise and assist the rebel forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To talk more about the implications of this and larger questions about the administration's national security priorities, we're joined in studio by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for being with us, Michael.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Since 2013, we've heard President Obama saying he would not put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. You could argue that 50 Special Operations Forces isn't exactly the same thing as deploying an army battalion. But nevertheless, this is a change in policy. Do you think it's the right one?

O'HANLON: Yes, I think it's the right direction. It's not nearly going to be adequate. This is initial force. And some people are going to worry about an escalation, a slippery slope, potential quagmire. This is the way Vietnam got started, they might say. And there's some truth to that concern. However, in this particular case, we've been trying the alternative for four years, and we are in a disaster, what I would call a slow motion genocide, the worst refugee crisis that we have seen in many, many years anywhere on the world's surface and strategic threats to our regional allies and perhaps even to ourselves, as we see in the Charlie Hebdo kind of attacks that are partly inspired by groups like ISIL. So I think we have to do more. The question is, does this point towards a logical next step that is short of an invasion? And I think the answer is yes, but it's not going to be enough by itself. We're probably going to have wind up, in my judgment, with several thousand Americans committed to this particular effort in and around Syria, sort of like where we are with Iraq or Afghanistan today.

MARTIN: This is obviously coming at a time when there's not exactly a whole lot of appetite among the American population, let alone the administration, to wage a large-scale ground war in Syria. Are you saying that that's the inevitable?

O'HANLON: Well, I think if we ever send large forces - and by that I would say more than 10,000 - it would be part of a peacekeeping force or a peace implementation force after we get a peace deal - because if you think about this deal that Secretary Kerry is trying to orchestrate right now, I don't think it really has a realistic prospect 'cause even if you could theoretically construct this new government, who is going to give it authority? What police - what army is going to actually impose its will and help stabilize Syria? There is no such force. So I think any kind of a peace deal ultimately, in a year or two perhaps, will require an international peacekeeping force with Americans part of that force and maybe 10 or 20, even 25,000 Americans initially. I think that's possible. That's not, however, in the near-term future. The near-term is going to be increasing the numbers of Special Forces and trainers who can work in relatively safer pockets of Syria to help the moderate opposition grow and to help provide relief to the civilians in those zones.

MARTIN: As you know - and you have written about in a new book - the Obama administration has made a real effort to downsize America's military footprint abroad and as a result, U.S. military forces. You say that's not wise. Why?

O'HANLON: First of all, I sort of feel President Obama's pain because he's saying he wants to stay out of these wars, and all of us want to. And yet, we need to have big enough forces to do the job. And he himself actually tripled forces in Afghanistan before he then gradually brought them down. So he himself is torn, and that's natural. And, in fact, I think it's right because you want to avoid big operations, but sometimes there's not much choice. And so the Syria case, as I argue in this book, "The Future Of Land Warfare," the Syria case is an example of how we might want to send or have to send 10, 20, 30,000 forces to one mission or another whether we really would prefer it not because there are security stakes around the world that still could necessitate more than just drones and Special Forces.

MARTIN: Although, you know, even as far back as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, top military officials from both parties have been saying that large ground forces is just not the way wars are going to be fought, that the technology is such that you can put remote pilots behind technology that allows them to use military drones and that that is just a more effective way to limit casualties and a more effective way to fight wars.

O'HANLON: They say that, and then they don't do it because they find challenges that need other kinds of tools in some cases. I'm not advocating this as the preferred option. But Rumsfeld said that, and then he wound up being part of Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary Gates said you'd have to have your head examined to want to fight big land wars in Asia. At the same time, he was presiding over two of them. And also both those individuals continue to plan for a possible Korea conflict. And by the way, the best way to avoid some of these is to be ready for them, to deter them. So whether it's Putin threatening the Baltic states, Kim Jong-un threatening South Korea, deterrence is the preferred option. That requires the capability to have large ground forces if necessary.

MARTIN: Michael O'Hanlon, his new book is called "The Future Of Land Warfare." Thanks so much for talking with us.

O'HANLON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.