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The Military Strategy Behind Bolstering U.S.-Backed Syrian Forces To Fight ISIS


In Syria, twin bombings on Saturday killed dozens of people in the capital Damascus. Militants say they were targeting allies of President Bashar al-Assad. The bloodshed came just days after the U.S. said it's bolstering its presence in Syria. The Trump administration is sending an additional 400 U.S. troops to Syria to target ISIS. We wanted to know what that says about the American strategy there now, so we called Michele Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. She also served as a member of former President Obama's intelligence advisory board. And I asked her about the American troops heading to Syria.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: The Trump administration has decided to send about 400 additional troops to Syria to support the Syrian democratic forces, which are a mix of Sunni and Kurdish militias, to try to take back Raqqa, which is really the headquarters of the so-called caliphate that ISIS has established. These are a mixture of Army Rangers and Marine artillery units who are going to provide additional logistical and fire support to the operation as it gets underway.

SINGH: Is the introduction of more forces involving the U.S. more than the mission which, to this point, has been largely advisory in training capacity?

FLOURNOY: Well, I actually think this is more along the lines of a continuum of the strategy that's been underway for some time against ISIS. The goal is really to take one of the most important pieces of territory that has enabled ISIS to claim they have established a caliphate to take that away. Because as long as they have say - are able to say we have a caliphate, you know, they're able to recruit from around the world, they're able to inspire people to try to support that. And so taking territory away from them dramatically reduces the appeal of their narrative and their ability to claim success.

SINGH: There is resistance among lawmakers to strategy that the Trump administration has put forward, some critics saying that, really, it's sort of a lack of strategy. Can you just talk to me about the resistance or conflicting issues that may exist from a congressional point of view to what the U.S. is now doing in Syria?

FLOURNOY: I think there are pretty broad range of views on Capitol Hill with regard to the fight against ISIS and this operation in particular. There are some who have been calling for a long time for the United States to at least better resource the strategy of supporting partners on the ground who will be fighting ISIS. And so they will be applauding this additional troop deployment.

And there are others who say, wait a minute, you know, we're just getting deeper into something that could become a morass or could get U.S. troops sort of caught in the middle between a number of different opposing forces. Where's the strategy? I do think that the Trump administration sort of owes the American people and the Congress a clear statement of its strategy for fighting ISIS.

SINGH: What did you make of President Assad's comments yesterday? He told Chinese media in an interview published yesterday that he had not given the U.S. permission to send additional troops.

FLOURNOY: Well, this has been true all along. The forces that we have sent into Syria have never been approved by Assad. But it does raise the larger question of, as we make progress against ISIS, the issue that looms larger is how will the Syrian civil war ultimately end and be resolved? Because as long as that civil war continues, there will be sort of fertile ground for not only ISIS but other terrorist organizations like Al-Nusra and others to keep coming back.

SINGH: That was Michele Flournoy, chief executive officer of the Center for New American Security. She also served as a member of President Obama's intelligence advisory board. Michele, thanks so much for joining us.

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

Lakshmi Singh is a midday newscaster and a guest host for NPR, which she joined in 2000.