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In Europe, President Obama commits more special forces for Syria but Larry Wilkerson says he is more concerned about dangerous and provocative posturing on the Ukraine border

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. President Barack Obama confirmed on Monday morning that he has approved the deployment of 250 additional US personnel to Syria, including special forces to train Islamic militias fighting the Islamic State. Let’s take a look at what he had to say. BARACK OBAMA: Just as I’ve approved additional support for Iraqi forces against ISIL, I’ve decided to increase US support for local forces fighting ISIL in Syria. A small number of American special operations forces are already on the ground in Syria and their expertise has been critical as local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas. So, given the success, I’ve approved the deployment of up to 250 additional US personnel in Syria, including special forces, to keep up this momentum. PERIES: Joining us now to talk about all of this is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is former chief of staff for the US Secretary of State Colin Powell and currently an adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary. Larry, good to have you with us again. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks, Sharmini. Good to be with you. PERIES: So, Larry, this particular part, although it’s a small number of troops, 250, this is somewhat of a departure from President Obama’s policy of not wanting to start another war in the Middle East, but more and more we are seeing him inching towards one, so give us a sense of your thoughts on that and also these troops. Who exactly are they helping in Syria, and for what purpose? WILKERSON: I think it’s more a case of wanting to stop the war, not start one, certainly not start major US involvement in it. I see this as another move to satisfy some of the political opposition he’s got, to doing things and doing more robust things, but also more importantly as a move to put more advisors, green berets, essentially, on the ground in Syria with some of the forces that we feel are doing a better job, for example like the Peshmerga, the Kurds inside Syria, not necessarily what is in Iraq. I also see Ash Carter’s announcement that 217, I think of similar types, were going to Baghdad, are going to Iraq, and essentially they’ll be helping to train the Iraq forces and also provide for ability for the US to eliminate targets for US air power, more specific target elimination and therefore more specific and focused and accurate and effective strikes. PERIES: Larry, Obama also talked about expanding NATO’s presence in Syria. Let’s take a look at what he had to say. OBAMA: Even as European countries make important contributions against ISIL, Europe, including NATO, can still do more. So I’ve spoken to Chancellor Merkel, and I’ll be meeting later with the presidents of France and the prime ministers of Great Britain and of Italy. In Syria and Iraq we need more nations contributing to [their] campaign. We need more nations contributing trainers to help build up local forces in Iraq. PERIES: So, Larry, President Obama here is talking about expansion of NATO in the region. Give us a sense of what that actually means. WILKERSON: There are several things there. We’re still searching for an out of area mission for this alliance which is left over from the Cold War, and it’s also an attempt to augment and make more robust burden sharing, to get the other countries to do more in their behalf. After all, many of the refugees are going to Europe and destabilizing Europe, in some people’s views, and it’s also a way to get the alliance involved, again, extra-Europe. Let me say that I’m more concerned with what the German press was reporting this morning about his, President Obama’s attempts to get Chancellor Merkel in particular, but robust German troop contributions to the, quote, exercises, unquote, that are happening, apparently, on the Ukraine border, which is an attempt to show Mr. Putin that NATO is ready and willing to take action in Ukraine of a more robust nature if it needs to. I think that this is a far more provocative and even dangerous move, perhaps, than plussing up by a few special operations forces [inaud.] Iraq the US troop presence. PERIES: And do you think the German government will participate in this? WILKERSON: I think that’s going to be an interesting thing to see, because the most potent member of NATO, other than the United States, on the continent is Germany. Potentially the most potent, period, is Germany because of proximity, interior lines and so forth, and also the German reputation for extraordinarily good military forces, and that reputation is well deserved, I might add. I’ve worked with them before. So, if you put major German forces on the border with Ukraine you’ve not only got a political commitment from Angela Merkel to the more or less taunting policy. You’ve got Germany committed to that policy, and in many respects that’s kind of worrisome. I’d rather see Germany playing a sort of mediating role in this rather than joining the train against Vladimir Putin. PERIES: And has those relations severed between Germany and Putin because, you know, obviously Russia was an ally of Germany in much of the discussions related to peace in Syria. WILKERSON: Yeah, this is beginning to look more like the world that everyone predicted, not everyone, but certainly I did, this multipolar world that has forgotten World War II, and rightfully so. We don’t have a single political leader in Europe anymore whose feet are in the war, was born in the war or has a real, vivid recollection of the war, and so you’ve got power shifts taking place in the world and you’ve got people looking for which side of the power shift their interests are best protected by. So we can expect that NATO members, now 29, I’m told, making the alliance rather feckless, in reality, to go different directions as their interests point them in different directions, and when you live cheek and jowl with Russia, as Germany does, and you have the historical background the Germany and Russia have, I once wrote a long poem about this. It began with Prince Nevsky at the Battle of the Ice way back when. You’ve got a real power situation that needs to be carefully tendered and carefully treated. Germany is the lynchpin against any revived Cold War, if you will, or revived Russia with regard to threatening Europe. but there’s actually no reason at all why Russia should be a threat to Europe. Indeed, she’s a part of Europe. No reason at all why NATO should be a threat to Russia. This is ridiculous, what we’re doing. We have the Russians doing exercises in 2013 and 2014 that show that what they fear, from their exercise posture, is a NATO invasion, and we have us presenting the example to them that looks like it could be a NATO invasion. And oh, by the way, in their doctrine, the way their military stems the nose of that invasion is by using small-yield nuclear weapons against it. This is not what we need in the heart of Europe. PERIES: All right, Larry. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface in terms of the depth of the problem here and I hope to have you back very soon to explain much more than you did today. WILKERSON: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.