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Why Senate resolution on Syria doesn’t rule out ground troops

The Syria resolution passed by a Senate committee this week rules out ground troops for ‘combat operations.’ But in the end, a Syria strike could require ground troops for other reasons.

With a Senate committee voting this week to authorize limited military intervention in Syria, concern remains about whether the conflict could escalate into one that involves American “boots on the ground.”

True, the resolution specifically bans the use of US forces in Syria “for the purposes of combat operations.” 

But “combat” is the operative word, and there is nothing in the resolution to keep US troops from being brought in for other purposes.

“It might appear to a casual reader to be some significant prohibitions – preventing combat forces,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan. “We define ‘combat’ in lots of different ways.”

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Without being “combat” forces, US troops could still be brought in for peacekeeping, search and rescue, and to secure chemical weapons plants should the need arise, adds Mr. Barno, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

“Despite the fact that the ban on combat troops looks pretty severe and restrictive,” he adds, “it’s not.”

Though putting US troops on the ground is certainly not part of any current plan, much will depend on the success of the initial US salvo, which will include cruise missile strikes from Navy ships out in the Mediterranean.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, for the first time offered a window into what a US strike might look like during congressional hearings this week.

As it stands now, the goal for military planners is a challenging but specific one: to “deter and degrade” the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The tricky part is destroying or damaging these weapons without degrading security so much that the chemicals could easily be stolen by Islamist rebels in a free-for-all grab.

Were that to happen – an insidious variation of the looting of government ministries that occurred in the wake of the US military’s “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq in 2003 – the question of who would secure Syria’s chemical weapons could arise.

If the war plan ultimately calls for Air Force bombers to augment the campaign – in response to intelligence that indicates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has moved around his military equipment in anticipation of a US strike – this would also require having US Special Operations Forces on stand by to infiltrate into Syria and retrieve downed American pilots should the need arise, Barno notes.

The advanced technology currently used by the US military means less need for troops on the ground. The tactical Tomahawk cruise missile that will be used in any strike by the US Navy, for example, will help track any Assad forces who may try to disperse and hide, noted Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations.

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The Tomahawk can be programmed to change directions and “actually loiter” even after it is fired, much like a drone,” Admiral Greenert added in a discussion Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “We have quite a few of them out there, and it brings a really good option to the commander.”

That said, no US military operation comes without risk to US troops.

“I have to assume,” General Dempsey said in April, “that the potential adversary isn’t just going to sit back and allow us to impose our will on them.”

This could include, he added, using their own long-range rockets, missiles, artillery, or other asymmetric terrorist-style attacks to try to harm US troops and interests abroad.

A CNN television correspondent recently spoke about the US strike on Syria, saying in an on-air report, “I don’t think it’s really going to affect military families at all. This is going to be, if it is ordered, a cruise missile strike, no US troops on the ground.”

This prompted two US military spouses to write an open letter in response.

“We grew hopeful that better days were coming as we watched the end of the Iraq war, and we’re thrilled that the end of our involvement in Afghanistan is nigh, and yet now all of cable news is breathless and giddy with talk of war in Syria,” Rebekah Sanderlin and Molly Blake, both married to US troops, wrote. “There’s no such thing as ‘No boots on the ground.’ ”

“Perhaps you consider a relatively small number of troops to be the same as zero – but we don’t,” they added. “We know that each of those service members is somebody’s somebody.”