Breaking News (OK, Not Really): McCain Wants Boots on the Ground in Syria



Except for one sinister snicker when Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) expelled rowdy Code Pink protestors, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not look at all pleased this morning during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the ISIS threat and the proposed American response.

McCain disagreed that the strategy for combating ISIS presented by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey went far enough in addressing the "immediate threat to American people and interests in the Middle East."

In his opening remarks, Hagel stated that the strategy would involve a mixture of air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, a deployment of military advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and the arming and training of 5,000 "vetted" moderate Syrian rebels. He said that the U.S. was building an international coalition to implement a comprehensive approach to fighting ISIS—including Arab Muslim nations. Hagel conceded that this would be no short-lived task:

Significant commitment like this will not be an easy or a brief effort. It is complicated. We are at war with ISIL, as we are with al-Qaeda…but destroying ISIL will require more than military efforts alone.

Dempsey echoed Hagel, stating that, although the strategy focused on getting Iraqi security forces on their feet, an "Iraq-first strategy is not an Iraq-only strategy"—should ISIS remain in Syria, it will remain a threat, hence the need for a coalition force to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.

In accordance with the current presidential stance, however, Hagel and Dempsey made a studious effort during their testimony to stress that military advisers are not boots on the ground—at least for now. Dempsey said:

My view at this point is that the coalition is the appropriate way for it…if it fails to be true and there are threats to the U.S. then I would…recommend a solution that would include military ground forces.

Later he made the same point, responding to a question about the role of American forces in Iraq:

The airmen…are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are in a very much combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There's no intention for them to do so. But if I found the circumstances evolving I would change my recommendation.

Despite leaving open a very real possibility of future ground troops in the the region, these answers still left McCain unsatisfied. He seemed skeptical that Hagel and Dempsey could think that a strategy of bombing, training, and arming would have the desired effect. Specifically, he worried about the U.S.-led coalition training and arming members of the Free Syrian Army without offering substantive American military support. He said:

They will be fighting against [Bashar] Assad and Assad will attack them from the air, which he has done with significant success …if one of the Free Syrian Army is fighting against Assad and he is attacking them from the air, would we take action to prevent them from being attacked from Assad?

Meant to elicit a concession that boots on the ground are a strategic necessity—or, at the very least, a distinct possibility—McCain could only get a half answer from Hagel: "Any attack on those we have trained, we will help." Hagel then changed tack, arguing that focusing on Assad would weaken the international coalition and that an ISIS-only strategy is feasible.

But McCain might still have the last laugh: The hedging about when exactly combat advisers turn into actual combatants—which Dempsey said he'd consider "on a case-by-case basis"—leaves the boots-on-the-ground question very much up in the air.