Specific proposals to end the appalling violence in Syria, Yemen, and territories controlled by the Islamic State group are scarce in the nascent presidential campaign. That is about to change.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- who tells Yahoo Finance he’s “92-and-a-half percent sure” he’s running for president -- wants to send U.S. troops back to the world’s most volatile region to stamp out vicious terrorism and remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Assad has to go,” he says in the video above. “We’re going to have to send some of our soldiers back into the Middle East.”
Many world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, would love to see Assad booted from power. Assad has presided over a four-year-old civil war that has so far caused at least 210,000 deaths and forced nearly four million Syrians to flee the country. Assad’s troops have dropped unaimed “barrel bombs” filled with shrapnel on civilian areas, and used chemical weapons, in violation of international treaties. Desperate Syrian migrants are fueling the human trafficking crisis in the Mediterranean that has led to hundreds of drowning deaths as victims try to get safely to Europe.
Finding a way to remove the wily Assad, however, is no easy matter. The Obama administration tried to provide arms to some of the factions fighting Assad, but basically gave up, saying it was too hard to identify reliable allies. Graham’s approach would be far more muscular. He’d help form a regional force with 90% of the troops coming from Arab nations, and 10% coming from the U.S. Graham has previously said the number of troops he’d commit might total 10,000 or so.
“I would integrate our forces within a regional army,” he says. “There’s no other way to defend this nation than some of us being on the ground over there doing the fighting.”
A commitment of that nature would almost certainly require U.S. combat forces to deploy -- some to help train foreign armies but others to man the front. U.S. forces are generally more highly trained than Gulf armies, especially with regard to high-skill missions such as rapid armored maneuvers, special operations, logistics, reconnaissance and close-air support. “We can provide capability on the ground the Arab world doesn’t possess,” Graham says.
There are several obvious drawbacks to such a plan. It would be highly controversial and might not even draw strong support from Republicans. The Pentagon might resist too, since it usually objects to joining any coalition it doesn’t control. Graham is an Air Force reservist who has spent 33 years on active and reserve duty in the Judge Advocate General Corps, which gives him more credibility on national security matters than others with no military background. Still, many Americans would probably object to sending U.S. troops into another intractable Middle East conflict, after more than 4,400 died in Iraq.
If military force did remove Assad, there’d still be the problem of whom to replace him with, lest Syria become another lawless state, similar to Yemen or northern Iraq, ripe for occupation by the Islamic State or other offshoots of Al Qaeda. “You’d have to get a political coalition to rebuild Syria,” Graham acknowledges. Easier said than done.
In general, Graham would be far more interventionist than Obama has been or than the president's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, would probably be if elected president. Graham would also be more hawkish than most of his Republican contenders, especially Rand Paul, whose isolationist views Graham has frequently attacked.