The Pentagon Weighs Its Options In Syria And Iraq

Violence is spreading now in both Syria and Iraq, with al-Qaida and other jihadi fighters increasing their influence. In Syria, the U.S. is putting its hopes on peace talks, but there is no sign that the U.S. will go beyond that. The Pentagon has drawn up plans to increase the rebel training effort now being done by the CIA, but the White House has not given the go-ahead. In Iraq, the U.S. has said it will not send troops. Instead, it will sell missiles and drones to help the Iraqi government beat back a resurgent al-Qaida in Ramadi and Fallujah. The bottom line: The U.S. doesn't want to get dragged into either country.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the rising violence in both Syria and Iraq and American military options in the region. A group linked to al-Qaida has been fighting in Syria, battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That group has also crossed the border into Iraq where it is fighting for control of Ramadi and Fallujah, cities where hundreds of Americans died years ago.

In a moment, we'll hear what veterans of those battles think about the latest news from Fallujah.

SIEGEL: Here's a key difference between U.S. policy on the fighting in Syria and U.S. policy on the fighting in Iraq. Washington has not intervened in Syria, but the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, trained its armed forces, played midwife to its government and after a decade there, withdrew.

To what extent is the U.S. involved in the Iraq government's attempts to fight al-Qaida and retake its own cities? Well, we're going to ask NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hiya, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: What, if anything, is the Pentagon doing to fight this al-Qaida linked group, the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, in Iraq, they're letting Iraqi forces do the fighting and they promise more support, everything from intelligence-sharing to more hellfire missiles to surveillance drones. Some of this won't arrive until the spring, but the Iraqi military already has sufficient firepower.

Just today, the Iraqi defense minister announced a government air strike killed about two dozen al-Qaida militants, but the U.S. has made very clear it will send arms, but not send in American forces.

SIEGEL: Now, Tom, since this group, the ISIS, is fighting in both Syria and Iraq, if the U.S. gets more involved helping the Iraqis fight them in Iraq, can it do that without getting more involved in Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. does not plan on getting deeply involved now in Syria and, at this point, they seem to be letting the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad deal with these more radical rebels. His government forces are hitting their stronghold in Aleppo pretty hard. And also, the more moderate rebels supported by the U.S. in Saudi Arabia are also taking on these ISIS fighters.

But the question is and the real concern is how much does this fighting spread? It's already spilled into Iraq, as we've talked about, and Lebanon where there've been some car bombs and ISIS has claimed responsibility. The real concern is could this spread into Jordan and destabilize that country.

SIEGEL: Well, meanwhile, what is the U.S. doing to support the opposition in Syria now?

BOWMAN: Well, not too much, frankly. There's a small amount of training being done by the CIA, a hundred or so fighters at a time. And the U.S. is providing what officials call non-lethal assistance, radios, medical supplies, for example. At this point in Syria, the U.S. is putting all its hopes into two areas, the first is negotiations.

There's a peace conference, of course, scheduled for later this month in Geneva. Problem is, very few analysts give that any chance of success. And the second area is chemical weapons, removing more than 500 tons of mustard agent and the components that make nerve agent.

SIEGEL: The first of those chemicals finally arrived today at a Syrian port. What can you tell us about that?

BOWMAN: Right. The first shipment of chemicals arrived at the Syrian port and already have been loaded upon a Danish ship that's put out to sea and that ship will come back to port for another shipment, but we don't know when, at this point.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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