Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy said Wednesday that she does not advocate sending U.S. ground troops to Syria to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
On Monday, Defense One, the national security and defense news outlet of Atlantic Media, reported that Flournoy had “called for ‘limited military coercion’ to help remove Assad from power in Syria, including a ‘no bombing’ zone over parts of Syria held by U.S.-backed rebels.”
Reporter Patrick Tucker interpreted those comments, which Flournoy made at a Center for New American Security conference, to mean that she “said she would direct U.S. troops to push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria and would send more American boots to fight the Islamic State in the region.”
That report was widely cited elsewhere, including in a post by The Intercept’s co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald.
After publication, Flournoy wrote a letter to the editor of Defense One denying that she advocates “putting U.S. combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad’s forces or remove Assad from power.”
Tucker told The Intercept that Defense One did not issue a correction because they felt they accurately reported Flournoy’s policy position. “Strike weapons at standoff distance is troops,” said Tucker. “Those are military personnel. That is U.S. military power — at war with the Assad regime. There is just no way around it.”
He added, “We took a very inclusive use of the word ‘troops,’ one that matched the literal definition of ‘troops,’ but nowhere do we ever suggest or say ‘ground troops.'”
Flournoy did not deny the entire report that she favors increased U.S. intervention; for instance, she acknowledged her support for U.S. “strikes using standoff weapons — to retaliate against Syrian military targets” to enforce the no-bomb zone.
She wrote that she believes this would create “more favorable conditions on the ground for a negotiated political settlement.”
The potential Pentagon chief also wrote that she wants to increase “U.S. military support to moderate Syrian opposition groups fighting ISIS and the Assad regime.”
In the comments that Defense One initially quoted, Flournoy distinguished her proposed policy from a no-fly zone — a policy Clinton endorsed in December — explaining that “you’re not having aircraft drill holes in the sky. You’re not having to take out the entire civilian air defense system.” In 2015, Flournoy called the military dimensions of Obama’s strategy in Syria “under-resourced, while many of the non-military lines of operation remain underdeveloped.”
Flournoy’s stated foreign policy position would still increase U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war beyond what President Obama and top military officials have been willing to commit.
When asked in October 2015 if the U.S. was going to allow Russian forces to continue to bomb U.S.-supported moderate opposition forces, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded, “The president has made quite clear that Syria is not going to turn into a proxy war between Russia and the United States. That certainly would not be consistent with our interests.”
Flournoy’s reiterated willingness to engage directly with Syrian and proxy forces, coupled with Donald Trump’s commitment to send U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS, signals almost-inevitable military escalation in the Syrian conflict once Obama leaves office.