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Altman: Syrian says U.S. aid key to success

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Published:   |   Updated: February 24, 2014 at 07:02 AM

Do the right thing.

That’s the message that Oubai Shahbandar is trying to deliver to U.S. policy and military leaders.

Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition, was in Tampa last week, attending a modern warfare conference put on by the University of South Florida’s Citizenship Initiative. The right thing, he says, is increased U.S. support for the Free Syrian Army in its fight against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Shahbandar, 31, is intimately familiar with U.S. foreign policy, special operations forces and the ever-boiling cauldron of woe that is the Middle East.

He came to the U.S. from Damascus when he was nine, became a strategic analyst and political adviser supporting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and later served as a senior civilian adviser on the Village Stability Operations program in Afghanistan. And he did a four-year hitch working for the secretary of defense as a foreign affairs specialist focusing on the Middle East and Gulf security affairs.

So what is the right thing?

“Significantly increased aid of all types to the Syrian opposition,” says Shahbandar. “One, humanitarian aid, increased scope of American support to the pro-Western, moderate Syrian opposition forces on the ground in northern and southern Syria and two, make it very clear to the Russians and to the Assad regime that there are consequences for the genocide his forces are committing, consequences for the mass atrocities that the Assad regime’s militia and air force are committing against the Syrian people, against houses and villages and for not abiding by the U.N. Security Council agreement for removal of chemical weapons.”

Increased American engagement “is the only way you are going to ensure a balance of power on the ground and shift Assad’s calculus at a time when he is fully backed by Iran.”

Shahbandar, a smart stratcom expert, knows what buttons to push in an argument that failed to gain much traction after the Obama administration initially threatened, then, in the face of stiff congressional opposition after 13 years of war, pulled back its threat to use force against Assad after it was discovered that chemical weapons were used that killed more than 1,000 Syrians. Instead, the Russians stepped in and came up with a plan, as yet unfulfilled, to have Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile destroyed.

As a conflict that has killed more than 120,000 nears the four-year mark on March 15 with no end in sight, Shahbandar argues that U.S. national security interests are directly affected by the Syrian killing fields.

“The U.S. really needs to expand its train and equip program to moderate, pro-Western Free Syrian Army,” he says. “There are Syrian opposition forces who declared war on al-Qaida since Jan. 3 and have been fighting al-Qaida affiliates in northern and eastern Syria. I have spoken to many of those commanders in my time in southern Turkey on the border, and they made it clear they need a great deal of support from the West in order for the extremists to not establish a foothold that not only endangers the Syrian people but also endangers American national security interests.”

And with those four words — American national security interests — Shahbandar raises the stakes about a situation that is horrific but many feel beyond the scope of U.S. concerns, especially as the nation trims defense spending and deals with the physical and mental toll on a force that has been fighting since 2001.

Syria, which Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command told me was “the most challenging and complex situation I’ve seen in my 38-year military career,” is a dangerous place for the U.S. and its regional allies because of the Iranian influence, says Shahbandar.

“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Qods Force, is expanding their forces on the ground,” says Shahbandar. “This is an internationally designated terror group that’s killed hundreds of Americans in the past. They are supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah, another internationally designated terror group and they are moving their forces by the droves into Syria — hundreds of tons of Iranian weaponry is flowing on a monthly basis into Syria in support of the Assad regime and you’ve got these militia forces backed by Iran that are slaughtering the Syrian people and essentially establishing an auxiliary force in Syria. That’s not good for the Syrian people and it’s not good for American national security interests. The same people, the same forces backed by Iran, have launched terror attacks against civilians in the past and they will do it again and again if allowed the chance to solidify their control in Syria.”

Taking that argument a step further, an Iranian beachhead in Syria “will endanger not only American national security interests but also endanger the national security interests of American allies, in particular Jordan and Israel.”

Shahbandar, repeating his four-word refrain, says his presence at a conference dedicated to understanding the human domain of modern warfare was a natural.

“We cannot have a discussion on any of these topics without having a discussion about what is happening in Syria today and its impact on the region and ultimately its impact on American national security interests,” Shahbandar says.

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Speaking of U.S. engagement in that region, the conference gave me a rare opportunity to ask one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq about his thoughts on how things turned out, 4,500 U.S. deaths, 32,000 wounded and more than a trillion dollars later.

“A lot of things could have been done differently,” Paul Wolfowitz, who was deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, told me as I grabbed him for a quick interview in between sessions. “One of the things is we should have found a way to keep a presence there. The place would be a lot better if we had. But look, one thing that people are missing in all this is that it is a lot better that Iraqis are fighting for Fallujah than having Americans fighting for Fallujah. One of the things we did accomplish was giving them a chance to stand on their own feet. We will see if they make the best use of it.”

I then asked Wolfowitz if we should have gone into Iraq in the first place.

“It’s a very long subject and I am not going to try and answer it on the fly here,” he said. “But thanks though. Good try. I figured you would.”

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Special Operations Command are not often uttered in the same sentence.

But the two are working together to help commandos and their families.

USDA, which has a long history of working with the military and Socom last week signed an agreement allowing the Cooperative Extension System and Land Grant Universities “to work directly with USSOCOM to conduct research and develop programs for military families of Special Operations Units on issues such as personal financial management, health and nutrition, child care and youth empowerment,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Li Cohen, a spokeswoman for Socom.

The agreement is part of Socom commander Adm. William McRaven’s Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) effort, says Cohen.

“The USDA and the Department of Defense have a long-standing relationship in support of service members and their families” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden in a media release. “From offering workshops and classes about financial management for families, to creating positive youth development environments for military kids, to promoting healthy lifestyles, the USDA stands at the ready to serve.”

McRaven has long made the POTFF effort one of his main priorities.

“We are very grateful for USDA’s support to our special operations warriors and their families,” says McRaven. “One of the fundamentals of special operations is that people are more important than hardware. This partnership exemplifies that truth. By facilitating access to a magnitude of valuable and credible family support programs and research through land grant universities, USDA will play a vital role in strengthening our force’s resiliency and mission readiness.”

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The Pentagon announced the death of a Marine in Afghanistan earlier this month.

Master Sgt. Aaron C. Torian, 36, of Paducah, Ky., died Feb. 15, while conducting combat operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to 2d Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Special Operations Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

There have now been 2,300 deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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