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Thornberry: US unlikely to send large ground force to Syria

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 16, 2017

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday that he doubts the United States will send a large-scale ground force to fight in the Syrian war after reports the Pentagon might consider the option.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he supports the current U.S. strategy that includes up to 500 special operators who are tasked with advising and assisting Kurdish and rebel forces against the Islamic State group.

The Pentagon is weighing the option of ground troops, according to multiple reports citing anonymous sources, after President Donald Trump ordered a review of its nearly three-year-old strategy against the Islamic State group, which seized territory in war-torn Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014 and has since sparked terrorist attacks abroad.

“I do not see the United States putting a large ground force to take and occupy territory in Syria,” Thornberry told reporters.

The United States already has some forces on the ground – and has suffered casualties in the fight, Thornberry said. The military suffered its first combat death in Syria on Thanksgiving, when a Navy bomb disposal technician was killed by an improvised explosive device, and at least four servicemembers have been killed in Iraq since 2014.

The administration of President Barack Obama focused on waging an air campaign and supporting local forces who want to dislodge the Islamic State group, which imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law and conducted public executions in its push for a global caliphate.

But the effort has been slow going and earlier this month the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said it could take another six months to reclaim Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s center of power in Syria, and the city of Mosul in Iraq.

Any deployed ground forces would also be entering a complex civil war that not only involves the Islamic State group but a raft of other rebels, the conventional forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and the Russian military.

“I do believe this assist role is the right one for us there. Of course … that’s a long way from saying I see the solution of Syria,” Thornberry said.

The Pentagon refused to confirm or deny reports it is considering a proposal to send ground troops – a possibility that is likely to raise controversy after more than 15 years of near constant military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It would be “very speculative” to conclude that a proposal for ground troops will be given to the president, Pentagon officials said.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said a number of new measures to hasten the war campaign are under consideration.

Trump said Thursday that he has directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a Marine general who led combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, to spearhead the new effort against the Islamic State group. The Pentagon said the secretary is in close communication with combatant and ground commanders to get recommendations.

“They’ve spread like cancer. [The Islamic State group] has spread like cancer, another mess I inherited,” Trump said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
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