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Will America Need Boots On The Ground In Syria?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The conflict in Syria has the U.S. rethinking its military position in the Persian Gulf. Pentagon officials yesterday announced that some F-16 fighter jets that are in Jordan right now for a scheduled military exercise will stay there, at Jordan's request. The move underscores how nervous Syria's neighbors are becoming in the shadow of this war. Last week, the Obama administration said that President Bashar al-Assad's regime had crossed a red line by using chemical weapons against its own people, and the U.S. has now pledged more military support to the rebel forces. Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow in the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute. And last week he wrote an article in Foreign Affairs called "Syria's Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It." Thanks so much for being here.

ANDREW TABLER: Good morning.

MARTIN: I'd like to start by asking you about the Obama administration's latest moves on Syria. Ben Rhodes, who is the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Friday that putting U.S. troops in Syria is, quote, off the table and that a no-fly zone would be both difficult and dangerous. We have a little tape of him talking. Let's listen to that.

BEN RHODES: We need to be humble here about our ability to solve a problem like Syria, certainly on our own. I think recent history teaches that even when you have U.S. boots on the ground, you're not necessarily going to be able to prevent violence among civilian populations. We saw that in Iraq, for instance.

MARTIN: What's your reaction to that? Do you agree?

TABLER: Not entirely, and quite frankly there are options, including using Patriot missiles and what they call offset safe zones with aircraft flying from neighboring countries, which would allow the United States to set up safe areas or no-fly zones over border areas of Syria. And that would not put U.S. aircraft or allied aircraft at risk of being shot down, at least largely. It's manageable. It wouldn't involve any boots on the ground and it would help defend the Syrian population from Assad regime's onslaught.

MARTIN: But you are talking about a U.S. presence on the ground.

TABLER: It would involve American officials. Right now, they go to border regions - U.S. officials go there all the time. They also spend a lot of time on Skype with them as well, and that's well known. Creating those safe areas would keep the refugees in the country and cared for. And U.S. officials could go into those areas to work directly with the opposition inside the country.

MARTIN: Would they be welcome? Our correspondents in the region have reported that the Syrian opposition wants military assistance, aid, resources - not necessarily Americans on the ground with them.

TABLER: Right. They don't want boots on the ground. Certainly in an offensive capacity, and they're uniform on that. They never have. But again, it is a political project that uses military means. And it's part of the package, including humanitarian assistance and rebuilding after the fight is over, that's going to allow the United States to gain some influence among a divided opposition.

MARTIN: But, you know, Andrew, time and again, people raise this concern about arming the opposition. Who are they? Can they be trusted? Is it safe to arm them?

TABLER: Yeah, it's a good question, right? The decision from the White House is to support the Supreme Military Council, and that is the armed affiliate of what we call SOC, the Syrian Opposition Coalition. OK, this is a widely respected and recognized body by the international community and many of our allies, including the United States. The problem, though, is how do you avoid the downsides of providing these arms to the SMC and having them leak out to extremists? And here is where it gets complicated. Within the SMC itself, you have a mixture of nationalists and defectors from the Syrian military who are what the United States has been dealing with. But also within there, you have Salafists and those affiliated with Salafists. Those individuals and those groups are closer to those on the far right. And we suspect it's from there that some of the weapons leak out. So, I wouldn't expect the United States is going to dump a bunch of weapons on the Supreme Military Council. I think we're going to be looking for individuals within it who are trusted and tried. And we know a number of them, and I think that's where the experiment's going to begin.

MARTIN: But there are so many red flags here when it comes to the possibility of U.S. intervention. You just outlined the possibility of inadvertently arming extremists. There is the possibility of getting involved in a regional conflagration. Can you outline the American interests here? I mean, clearly more than 90,000 people have died. It is not difficult to make a humanitarian argument. Setting that aside, what are the broader U.S. interests?

TABLER: Yeah. We don't have a lot of interests in Syria itself, right? Why is Syria important? Because of geography. Many people have said that the Syria crisis is similar to that of the Lebanon war, which raged for 15 years. Lebanon was on the end of the block of row houses, to use a metaphor, OK. Syria is different. Syria is the row house in the middle of the block, OK. And anybody who owns property around the United States knows that if that house, once it catches on fire, fills up with rats - whatever you want to say - is destroyed, it can literally devastate the entire block. All of that is happening in a region which is home to 65 percent of the world's oil reserves and 40 percent of its gas reserves. That is where America's interests are.

MARTIN: Andrew Tabler is the author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Assad's Syria." He joined us in our studios in Washington. Thanks so much for coming in.

TABLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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