WASHINGTON — The new chairman of the House’s military oversight committee said Thursday that the United States should consider putting some troops on the battlefield in Syria to bolster the offensive against the Islamic State.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the Obama administration has locked the country into an ineffective military strategy by relying on an air campaign and unaccompanied foreign forces to roll back the extremist group. Front-line troops to guide airstrikes and collect intelligence in Syria could be one way make the coalition war effort more effective, he said.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to tout his administration’s strategy and said it has kept the nation out of another ground war in Iraq. But Thornberry took the reins this month of the House Armed Services Committee as part of an incoming Republican majority in both chambers of Congress that consider the president’s assessment overly optimistic.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said last fall that the United States may need to deploy ground troops to Iraq, and Thornberry’s comments show some key Republicans in Congress might still back such a move — even into Syria, where a complex civil war is raging.
“My point is we should not tie our hands and pretend there is a border there when there is not,” Thornberry told reporters during a roundtable discussion. “You have to look at where in Syria [U.S. forces would operate] and the risk they would be under and could they be protected.”
About 2,300 troops are deployed to Iraq to train and assist the country’s military, with some dedicated to protecting those trainers. But so far the military has limited Syria operations to the air.
The chairman said he understands the conflict in Syria is a “horrible mess” and that he voted in support of the Obama administration’s plan to train and equip a proxy ground army of moderate Syrian rebels against the Islamic State fighters, who now control large swaths of that country and Iraq. Congress granted the Pentagon authority last month to carry out the program, which is expected to begin training fighters this spring and will likely occur outside the war-torn country.
But Thornberry said his position differs with Obama from there, and that Congress may need to tell the public an ugly truth about the difficulty of the fight in Syria and the need for an expanded military role on the ground. He said there is already a wide consensus among lawmakers and the military that troops to guide airstrikes in Iraq would make operations there more effective.
“Political constraints are not going to get the job done,” he said. “This is hard enough even if we don’t tie our hands.”
The House Armed Services Committee exercises strong influence over the military by crafting defense budgets and legislation. Thornberry’s hawkish views on Syria are likely to dovetail with those of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who took control of the Senate Armed Services Committee this month.
McCain has repeatedly called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of an increased war effort in that country and Iraq.