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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.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / September 5, 2013

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (l.) and Secretary of State John Kerry take questions from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday in Washington about President Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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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.”

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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.”

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.

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