A key exchange at 10:30 of the clip below that’s worth flagging after Eli Lake blew up the Internet on Thursday night with a story claiming McMaster wants “tens of thousands” of American troops deployed to the Euphrates River Valley. That sent a shudder of dread through everyone to the left of John McCain and everyone to the right of, well, John McCain. Was Trump’s new, more establishment NSA already gearing up for Iraq War III? Martha Raddatz asked McMaster about it yesterday. Short answer: No. (Whew!) Somewhat longer answer: Well…
Well, I mean, that remains to be seen. I don’t think so. I think what we’re doing now is supporting partner forces in Syria, in certain portions of the country, including the northeastern part of the country along the Euphrates River valley. It is a matter of time only until ISIS is defeated there. And what’s going to be really critical though is what forces can then establish enduring security in those regions that have a legitimacy with the population, that are representative of the population, that can set conditions for reconstruction to begin.
Martha, the cities of the Sunni Arab world in that region are in rubble. And so in a very successful conference in Washington two weeks ago, the United States State Department organized a bunch of donors and like-minded allies, part of coalition to pledge money for reconstruction. But what we need now is we need a security situation that’s conducive to that reconstruction, that can allow so many of these displaced people and refugees to return. And for those long-suffering people to enjoy the security, stability, that they deserve.
Hmmm. On the one hand, no new troops — at the moment. On the other hand, “that remains to be seen” is far less conclusive than doves might like. In particular, what McMaster says about needing security that has “a legitimacy with the population” does jibe with Lake’s report. According to Lake’s sources, McMaster’s chief concern with the current battle plan, in which the Kurds would sweep into Raqqa and oust ISIS, is that Sunni Arabs in Syria won’t tolerate a Kurdish occupation of “their” lands. If you end up with Kurdish forces in charge of Raqqa, that may ignite a new insurgency just as the jihadis are being wiped out. (Turkish discomfort with Kurdish battlefield victories also weighs against it.) If not the Kurds, though, then who? Possible answer: A multinational American/Arab force. Ideally it would be a multinational Arab force without American help, but (a) nations like Jordan and Saudi Arabia might not be willing to risk urban warfare with ISIS without American firepower alongside and (b) if you want to make sure a huge raft of international reconstruction dollars flows where it’s supposed to flow, you’re better off with an American force overseeing it than Arab forces. And what happens if an American/Arab occupation of Raqqa also leads to a new Syrian Sunni insurgency? The White House will get back to you on that.
So maybe we shouldn’t take too much reassurance from this. Look at it this way: What could McMaster say, realistically, when asked if he wants more troops in Syria? Even Lake’s sources concede that that’s a minority position within the administration. McMaster’s boss said just last week that “we’re not going into Syria.” And as a brand new NSA, McMaster may not feel he’s in a position to publicly float an idea as controversial as sending thousands of ground troops to Syria until he has way, way more support among people who matter. The prudent answer for now is “no, no more troops.” But ask him again in, say, six months.