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Trump's Military Strategy Reflects A More Aggressive Stance


The United States is nearly doubling its military presence in Syria. The Pentagon says about 400 Marines are joining the roughly 500 American troops already deployed. They're helping to train and equip local Syrians in the fight against the Islamic State. We're going to talk about this new American strategy for Syria this morning and also what it says about the Trump administration's way of doing things. Let's start with NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, who's in our studio this morning. Hi, Tom.


GREENE: So why more troops to Syria now?

BOWMAN: Well, David, this is all geared toward the final big battle in Syria, retaking Raqqa. Now, that's the de facto capital for ISIS. And to help local ground troops, both Syrian-Arabs and Kurds, the U.S. is sending in some Marine artillery. So along with the Marine security detachment, it's about 400 Marines are expected to arrive soon. So these will be the first conventional forces. Already, you have more than 500 American special operators - Green Berets and Navy SEALs - who are training local forces, arming them, assisting them, sometimes pretty close to the front lines.

GREENE: You say final battle. I mean, hasn't the problem or the complexity here always been that there's so many sides in Syria? I mean, U.S. forces are really in a position where there are different sets of allies with different agendas. Has that changed at all here?

BOWMAN: You know, it hasn't changed. And right now you have several dozen American troops, Army Rangers, patrolling in armored vehicles in northern Syria. And they're basically separating the U.S.-supported rebels from the Turkish-supported rebels and also keeping Syrian forces at bay. Now, the top general for the region, Joe Votel, told senators yesterday he was concerned these U.S. troops could get caught in some kind of a crossfire here.

GREENE: Well, given that backdrop, when we hear President Trump talk about, you know, so clearly, we're going to defeat ISIS, I mean, is it possible for it to be that simple?

BOWMAN: Well, the overall goal from the beginning - really for more than two years - has been to defeat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. But ISIS still controls Raqqa, as I said, in Syria where officials say it's plotting terror attacks there against the West. Now, the U.S. wants to duplicate the strategy from next door in Iraq, work with local forces where the U.S. provides training and airstrikes.

The problem in Syria for the U.S. is the Turks don't want the U.S. to work with the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers them all terrorists. But the U.S. says the Kurds are the best fighters and will take part in the Raqqa operation. So it is very complex and much more difficult in Syria than Iraq.

GREENE: Tom, stay with us. I want to bring in another voice here. It's Robert Ford, who is the Obama administration's ambassador to Syria. He's now a fellow at the Middle East Institute, and he joins us from New Haven, Conn., on Skype. Ambassador, good morning.

ROBERT FORD: Good morning. How are you?

GREENE: I'm well, thank you. Thanks for being part of the conversation. President Trump ordering this new incursion - is this a different strategy than the one you were a part of under President Obama?

FORD: Oh, absolutely. During the Obama administration, there was really not a thought of having U.S. forces go into Syria in force, right? We're now talking about maybe a force that's nearing a thousand boots on the ground and participating directly in combat, even if it's with artillery operations. And in addition, we now have forces in a city in northern Syria that are playing the role essentially of peacekeepers between different warring factions. Certainly not something that, had we suggested it in 2012 or '13, President Obama would have looked kindly upon.

GREENE: He would not have. What about in 2017? Do you think this is a good idea? Have you come around to this?

FORD: No, I do not. I don't think we should be deploying U.S. forces into a complex country like Syria with the complications on the ground that you just mentioned, David, without a plan for how you pull them back out again. And that depends on a political settlement in Syria. And that seems really far away.

GREENE: Well, stay with me, Ambassador, if you can. Tom Bowman, I want to turn back to you. I mean, the ambassador's saying there - there's not a real plan yet. I mean, President Trump, you know, has taken the baton from President Obama. He has said that he wants to do much more in this fight against ISIS.

BOWMAN: That's right. I mean, what they're trying to achieve here is some sort of a political settlement. But right now we just don't see that political settlement or we haven't heard about the way ahead. Clearly the - what they're trying to do is defeat ISIS, but what comes after that for a country like Syria? We just don't have that sense yet of the way ahead.

GREENE: Let's listen to a little bit of President Trump here.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But if America fights, it must only fight to win.

We have to win. We have to start winning wars again.

GREENE: Ambassador, is it possible to win? I mean, could we get to a point where you would say, OK, the Trump administration does have a strategy here and so send more troops, victory is possible?

FORD: We don't see the strategy yet, David. Look, we can take Raqqa and the forces that we help, the Syrian forces - Kurds or Syrian-Arab - they can take Raqqa. That's not so difficult. The question is, what do you do with it after you hold it? We took Ramadi in 2003 during the Bush Iraq War. We took it quickly. We took Fallujah quickly. But then what? Then we ended up in a real mess over a period of years because the politics weren't right.

And I still do not understand, after we boot ISIS out of Raqqa, who's going to control the place? Who's going to pay for the local government? Who's going to pay the police? Who's going to pay for reconstruction? There's nothing on that. There's no visibility on that yet.

GREENE: Now, that's a perspective there, Tom Bowman, from the Obama administration. You speak to people in the Pentagon under President Trump. Do these troop deployments in Syria, in the mind of the Pentagon right now, set the United States up to win?

BOWMAN: Well, again, you can win against the Islamic State. It's not all that difficult. Well, you know, it's somewhat difficult, but it's going to take time. They hope to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq by year's end, they're saying, take back that land. And as far as Syria, over time, they will take back Raqqa. But the question is, what's the next step? Again, who controls the country? Do you split it up? What's the hold force in Raqqa in other parts of the country?

GREENE: And a lot of people, of course, focusing not just on ISIS but, I mean, the plight of the Syrian people, which, I mean, this has just been an awful, awful war going on for some time. We've been speaking to NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in Washington and former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford on the line via Skype from New Haven, Conn. Gentlemen, thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

FORD: My pleasure.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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