WASHINGTON: A small number of U.S. special operations forces will be sent to northern Syria to work with local troops in the fight against Islamic State militants, the White House announced Friday, marking the first time Americans will be deployed openly on the ground in the country.
President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of fewer than 50 commandos to help coalition forces coordinate with local troops, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Earnest insisted their role should not be described as a “combat mission,” saying the troops would train, advise and assist local forces in an intensification of the U.S. effort against the Islamic State group. He acknowledged, however, the forces would be taking risks in a dangerous part of the world, where the U.S. also is conducting airstrikes.
“There’s no denying the serious risk they will be facing,” Earnest said, but “they are not in a combat mission.”
Officials said the U.S. troops would go into Syria over the next few weeks and likely spend less than two months there at a time. A senior defense official did not rule out adjusting or expanding the U.S. effort as conditions in Syria change.
U.S. troops have been on the ground in Syria before, Earnest said, noting a rescue mission more than a year ago and a more recent raid. Officials said those types of unilateral raids could still happen.
Although the number of troops is small, it marks an escalation of U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, which controls a large part of northern Syria and has its self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The move comes after weeks of deliberation on how to revive the struggling effort in Syria and the failed training and equipping mission there, and follows a visit to the region last week by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One senior official said that a first group of forces — possibly a couple of dozen — will go relatively soon to assess the situation and determine which groups on the ground the U.S. can best work with, including moderate Kurdish and Arab fighters. More special operations forces would follow once the U.S. better determines what the needs are.
The U.S. special operations forces will all come from the United States and will advise and assist the Syrian rebels from headquarters locations there. They won’t move to the front lines, go into battle with those troops or be used to call in airstrikes into Syria. Officials said the U.S. forces would help coordinate operations, planning and logistics.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at the possible changes earlier this week, saying the U.S. was retooling its strategy in Iraq and Syria and would conduct unilateral ground raids if needed to target Islamic State militants. The U.S. has done special operations raids in Syria, and it participated in a ground operation to rescue hostages last week in northern Iraq that resulted in the first U.S. combat death in that country since 2011.
The addition of special operations forces, however, marks a shift for Obama who has steadfastly said he would not put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria.
In recent weeks, U.S. military officials have been signaling greater acceptance for the idea of such a deployment.
Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. would do more to support moderate Syrian forces fighting IS.
Last week, Dunford met with his top commanders during a stop in Iraq, and told them to broaden their thinking and map out new ways the U.S.-led coalition can put more pressure on the Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. will also be sending additional aircraft, including A-10s and about a dozen F-15 fighters, to the Incirlik air base in Turkey, likely repositioning them from other spots in the region. The U.S. recently dropped 50 tons of ammunition to Arab groups fighting IS, and officials said more ammunition and possibly small firearms could be provided over time.
As part of the latest plan, the U.S. is also looking at ways to beef up its support for Iraqi forces battling IS, including additional equipment and training to counter roadside bombs and vehicle-borne explosive devices. The U.S. is also talking with the Iraqi government about setting up a commando task force to better target Islamic State leaders and networks.
A senior administration official said the U.S. has made good progress in Iraq and Syria when working with effective partners on the ground who can regain territory lost to IS. So the U.S. is moving away from failed approaches, such as the effort to train Syrian rebels outside the country and send them back into Syria.
The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration has been weighing how to better enable moderate Syrian forces to step up the fight against IS, particularly as Russia has entered the conflict with airstrikes.
U.S. officials made it clear that there is no plan now to coordinate with the Russians or tell Moscow where U.S. troops may be in Syria. They said the troops would not be near any locations being bombed by the Russians, but a senior defense official did not rule out the possibility of talking with Moscow if it becomes necessary in order to guarantee the safety of the U.S. troops.