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What the raid in Syria signals about U.S. involvement in 'forever wars' going forward

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

President Biden has often spoken about his desire to end U.S. involvement in forever wars in the Middle East. Yet today, he announced a U.S. commando raid in northwestern Syria that led to the death of the leader of ISIS.

For more on this operation and what it says about the president's approach to national security, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hello, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yes. Hi, Tam.

KEITH: Greg, to begin with, have we been able to reconstruct what happened with this raid?

MYRE: We do have a good bit of detail. It was the middle of the night when U.S. special operation forces landed in helicopters outside this white cinderblock home and surrounded by olive trees. It's in an area called Atma in northwest Syria. Lots of extremist groups have operated in this area over the years in the Syrian civil war.

U.S. forces used loudspeakers, telling people to come out of the house, but at least some stayed inside, creating a standoff. And according to President Biden, the target of this raid, the ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, detonated an explosive vest. He killed himself and several family members. Then a firefight broke out, and this entire operation lasted for two hours.

KEITH: What do we know about al-Qurayshi and how he was running ISIS?

MYRE: So he's originally from Iraq. He was a guy in his mid-40s, and he'd been a militant, it seems, for most of the past two decades in the region's wars. He became a senior ISIS figure as the group sort of surged to prominence back in 2014. But the group, as we know, has lost its territory and become less threatening. And he's not nearly as prominent as the previous ISIS leader, who actually was killed in a similar raid in the same area back in 2019.

So al-Qurayshi's been in charge a little over two years, but little was known about him. He was low profile. He didn't appear in photos or videos. Still, he was on the State Department global terrorist list. There was a $10 million reward for him. U.S. officials said they'd been planning this raid for the past couple of months. Biden was kept informed, and here's what he said today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This operation is testament to America's reach and capability to take out terrorist threats, no matter where they try to hide, anywhere in the world.

KEITH: The U.S. has come under criticism for civilian casualties in drone strikes and other raids. What can you tell us about the casualties here? And how is the Biden administration responding?

MYRE: So the - Syria's White Helmets, a private rescue group, said they were on the scene within minutes after the U.S. forces left. They recovered 13 bodies, mostly women and children, and some of them appeared to be quite young. Now, President Biden said he was very much aware of the possibility of civilian casualties. He said that's why he ordered troops to go in on the ground, which was much riskier than, say, a drone strike. Here's what he said.

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BIDEN: I directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties.

MYRE: And the Pentagon didn't have a full breakdown on Syrian casualties, but said 10 people in the House were able to come out unharmed and there were no U.S. casualties.

KEITH: Biden has made clear that he wants the U.S. out of open-ended military conflicts, but yesterday, he announced he was sending troops - more troops - into Eastern Europe and then this today. How does that square with what his stated policy is?

MYRE: Well, he has made the point that he doesn't want large number of troops in war zones, but he has talked about the need and his willingness to use small forces for sort of one-off counterterrorism operations. And that's exactly what we saw today in Syria.

KEITH: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WHITEFIELD BROTHERS' "SAFARI STRUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.