Marines Prepared for Boots on the Ground During Syria Crisis

Forward troops readied to save downed pilots, planes if Obama ordered strikes.

U.S. Marine soldiers from 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Battalion landing team deployed from Okinawa, Japan, participate in the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint landing operation at Pohang seashore on March 29, 2012 in Pohang, South Korea.
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An expeditionary Marine unit was ready to execute rescue missions in and around Syria this summer at a time when the world waited for President Barack Obama to follow through on threats he would attack the war-torn nation.

Syria was at the top of the agenda for the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit leading up to its departure in early March for an 8-month deployment in and around the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It proved to be a busy summer for the Marine Corps and Navy group, amid ongoing strife in that country's civil war, as well as heightened threat levels in nearby Egypt, the anniversary of the 2012 Benghazi attacks and planned military exercises in neighboring Jordan.

"When we left, we thought we'd be involved in Syria in terms of humanitarian assistance," said Navy Capt. Jim Cody on Thursday. "The refugee crisis was spilling into all the neighboring countries."

[READ: U.S. Sent Marines, Navy to Egypt]

Cody served as commander of the three-ship Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, bearing roughly 4,000 sailors and Marines along with the 26th MEU that deployed to the region in support of the Navy's 5th and 6th fleets. He, along with 26th MEU commander Marine Col. Matthew St. Clair, spoke to a group of reporters and observers at the Virginia-based Potomac Institute Thursday afternoon.

The ready group's anticipation proved fruitful when Obama advocated in a Sept. 10 speech for a military strike against the Bashar Assad regime and its supporting forces. Obama ultimately left that decision up to Congress, and maintains his threat ultimately prompted the Syrian regime to turn over its stockpiles of chemical weapons it had increasingly used, according to government reports.

At that time, the Marines prepared for a situation in which they would have to make landfall.

"As discussion of the strikes was occurring, we did some of our own prudent planning," St. Clair said. "If strikes did occur -- that means aircraft are potentially flying -- there would have to be the capability to conduct a recovery of either the aircraft or the pilots if they were shot down. That's a capability the [MEU] has."

This included planning for support missions in other regional countries should the security fallout spread.

The Marines and their supporting sailors put a lot of time into preparing for a humanitarian mission in the leadup to the deployment, the colonel said. As they prepared, conditions on the ground there "continued to deteriorate."

[ALSO: Explosions in Syria Credited to Israeli Airstrike]

Obama's announcement also came months after Operation Eager Lion, a planned joint military exercise in Jordan in June that involved 17 countries' militaries and upwards of 8,000 troops.

The U.S. frequently uses such exercises as a show of force against potentially hostile nations.

"I thought that exercise would turn into something else, but it did not," says St. Clair. "The exercise stayed focused on the exercise objectives."

The Kearsarge AFG included the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, the amphibious dock ship USS San Antonio and the amphibious dock landing ship the USS Carter Hall.

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