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Why the Trump administration is sending more troops to Syria

March 23, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The Pentagon has authorized the deployment of 400 additional troops to Syria in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State militant group. Judy Woodruff discusses the U.S.'s deepening military involvement and the complexities with former Defense Department official Andrew Exum and Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: United States military involvement in Syria has deepened since President Trump took office. The Pentagon has authorized the deployment of 400 more troops, some of whom are already there. Five hundred special operations forces sent by the Obama administration are also on the ground. War planners reportedly are seeking to send an additional 1,000 American troops to Syria.

Yesterday, in Tabqa, Syria, American forces aided Syrian rebel and Kurdish forces in the taking a strategic dam and road from ISIS. All this comes on a complex battlefield and under the wary eye of Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey.

For more on what’s happening now and what may come, I’m joined by Andrew Exum. He served in the Obama administration until this January as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. He’s also a former Army Ranger and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. And Bulent Aliriza, he’s the director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It’s a Washington think tank.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

Andrew Exum, to you first.

How much of a change is what we are seeing right now in Syria from what was going on in the Obama administration?

ANDREW EXUM, Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense: So, significant in one way. Significant in terms of the numbers. It is clear that the Trump administration doesn’t have the same reticence that the Obama administration did in terms of putting more boots on the ground, especially conventional troops, as opposed to special operations troops.

Where it is similar is that what we are trying to do, it seems, is replicate the success we have had in Iraq working, by, with and through local forces, so no direct combat themselves, but really enabling local forces to try to win the fight.

It seems what the U.S. military is trying to do is put the same infrastructure on the ground that has proved successful in helping the Iraqi army in Mosul in Syria to help the Syrians successfully take Raqqa.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if the Trump administration seems to be headed toward 2,000, assuming this next 1,000 contingent gets there, is that where the Obama administration would have eventually gotten, or is that not even clear?

ANDREW EXUM: So, it’s a really good question.

Over the past 18 months, we have steadily ramped up our commitment in terms of resources to both Iraq and Syria, and certainly, as the fight developed in Iraq, we continued to put more troop there, for example, building up the Qayyarah West Airfield in presentation for the fight against Mosul.

So, you could say the Obama administration might have eventually done something similar to this. We really don’t know. In some ways, this is typical of the ramping up of the strategy so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bulent Aliriza, do you see in as a continuation or as something tangibly different?

BULENT ALIRIZA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: It is a combination, exactly as Andrew says.

It is a continuation in the sense that the Obama administration was relying on the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, which causes terribly tremendous heartburn in the context of the Syrian Democratic forces. The difference is that, in Iraq, the U.S. is relying on the Iraqi army, supplemented with Peshmerga Kurdish forces.

In this case, the primary reliance on the Syrian Kurds, with lots and lots and complications.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, expand a little bit, Bulent Aliriza, on why the Turkish government is so concerned about — or growing concerned?

BULENT ALIRIZA: The Turkish government regards the YPG, the fighting arm of the Syrian Kurdish party the PYD, as an extension of the PKK, which has been fighting Turkey for over three decades.

With the Obama administration and subsequently with the Trump administration, Turkey tried to persuade the U.S. not to rely on the Syrian Kurds for this reason, and to actually look to opposition groups backed by Turkey who have actually moved into Northern Syria with Turkish backing recently, and maybe even the Turkish army to take Raqqa.

But it seems that the Obama administration’s recommendation, which was reviewed by the Pentagon, has led the Trump administration to continue with the Syrian Kurdish option.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, as far as you know, Andrew Exum, how does the — you know how the Obama administration viewed Turkey’s concerns. What does it look like the Trump administration, how do they see these concerns by Turkey?

ANDREW EXUM: Yes.

No, my colleague sketched out exactly right. We actually started meeting with the Turks in the summer of 2015 to try to see if there was any way to make use of these opposition forces that Turkey had identified.

The bottom line is that there are too few of them and they weren’t combat-ready in the same way that our other partners were ready. And the Turkish military was never on the table during the Obama administration, although, of course, Turkey committed its own forces into Northern Syria late in the day in the administration.

Unclear how this administration looks at it. I think they had been trying to see if there was some way they could do this without angering a NATO partner in Turkey. And this may be why they’re putting more U.S. forces on the ground, so that they don’t have to provide the same type of equipment to the YPG they might have to — had to have otherwise done if they had been trying to do this with fewer U.S. forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Bulent Aliriza, as you look, as you step back and look at this, does it look like the Trump administration is making a smart move here in the way they are handling this?

BULENT ALIRIZA: I think their primary motivation here is to try and live up to the commitment that Trump made during the campaign, to actually deal with ISIS as quickly as possible.

And, in this case, the Syrian Kurds offered the best option in order to get this done as soon as possible. Beyond that, I think there are going to be lots and lots of complications, but, frankly, this is where we are. And nobody is really thinking beyond the takeover of Raqqa from ISIL.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You assess it the same way?

ANDREW EXUM: I do.

I think the problems really begin in some ways after you take Raqqa, because it is clear that the Islamic State is going to retreat to Deir el-Zour. The regime has a strong toehold in Deir el-Zour. So I think the key questions going forward is, do you follow Da’esh to Deir el-Zour? Do you try to work with the regime in Russia?

I think the geography only gets more complicated the farther south you go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about — Bulent Aliriza, what about — to both of you, what about once ISIS is cleared out? Is there a plan for what to do with those spaces that are vacated, that are emptied out?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, the Syrian government under Bashar Assad seems to have survived.

Initially, the Obama administration, like Turkey and many other countries, was committed to his ouster. With Russian backing, with Iranian backing, they have survived.

But in this process, ISIL emerged and began to be the problem within Syria and beyond that it has. Now, even if you take Raqqa, even if you take Mosul across the border in Iraq, unfortunately, the problem posed by radical jihadists is going to continue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which spells — go ahead.

ANDREW EXUM: I think that is right.

I think that, unfortunately, I think that we have already put our U.S. special operators in a very difficult position in Northern Syria already. You can see them refereeing between the Turkish-aligned forces and U.S.-backed forces.

I have real concerns about their ability to enable local forces to not just seize Raqqa, but then to hold Raqqa. And what is unclear to me is, what is the endgame? How do we eventually exfiltrate U.S. forces out of a very complicated situation in Northern Syria, once we have defeated the Islamic State?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, for folks who are watching this, Bulent Aliriza, and they are wondering, OK, what are the risks that the Trump administration is taking, how would you describe them?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, the risks in Syria to the U.S., to the Trump administration are minimal. It is the risks beyond Syria posed by ISIL and other organizations like that.

And so dealing with them in Syria, as I said, is relatively easy. But it might actually make the difficulties posed by the radical jihadists beyond Syria’s borders even more intractable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in just a few words, you see it the same way?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I think what the United States is going to try to do after this is, we have figured out a way to squeeze Da’esh from multiple directions in Iraq and Syria. I know our military planners are now thinking through, what does that mean on a global scale? How do you avoid exactly the situation that my colleague is describing?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Making it much worse elsewhere, once you get rid of them, so to speak.

ANDREW EXUM: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that happens in Syria.

Andrew Exum, Bulent Aliriza, we thank you both.

BULENT ALIRIZA: Thank you.

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