Several White House officials confirmed on Friday that President Obama has authorized the deployment of “fewer than 50” special operations forces to Kurdish controlled region in Northern Syria. The move emphasizes a concern that the fight against the Islamic terror group in Iraq and Syria has stalled and needs to be rebooted. White House officials deny that this alters the basic strategy.
White House insists these are “advisers” and would help support a coalition of 5,000 Arab forces operating against ISIS near Raqqa. The Pentagon recently began supporting the Arab coalition, saying they were currently engaged in operations against the Islamic State in northern Syria and were in a position to put pressure on militants in Raqqa, which would represent a new front in the war. Obama has long resisted an American military presence on the ground to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria but has reluctantly escalated U.S. involvement in that fight over time since launching the military effort in 2014.
American special ops teams have conducted secretive missions within Syria but this announcement marks the first permanent presence of U.S. troops in Syria since U.S. military began leading the effort to confront ISIS, which now controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. The decision comes on the heels of the first death of an American military service member in the fight against ISIS. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died last week in Iraq as he and other American Special Operations forces conducted a raid to rescue hostages held by ISIS.
The administration has also authorized the deployment of A-10s, an aircraft that is effective in providing close support to ground troops, to Turkey where they will be used in the war against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL or ISIS. Syrian Kurdish forces applauded the decision to deploy American troops but emphasized the need for more assistance and weapons.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned earlier this week that to expect more such raids when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Pentagon would be stepping up attacks against ISIS — including through “direct action on the ground” in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. currently has around 3,300 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and protect U.S. facilities. In addition to the announcement about sending Special Operations Forces into Syria, the White House will announce it will send more fighter jets to Turkey for intensified bombing runs on ISIS from a NATO airbase there.
A U.S. official told ABC News that Carter has proposed that American military advisers should be allowed to advise Iraqi forces trying to retake Ramadi from ISIS. Under the proposal U.S. military advisers would be allowed to advise and assist Iraqi forces at the brigade level which would have a greater impact on tactical decisions. Until now U.S. advisers are only allowed to work with military commanders at the much higher division and corps level.
The official said there is also the possibility that Apache attack helicopters already in the Baghdad area for force protection could be re-tasked to assist with the Iraqi military’s fight to retake Ramadi. Iraqi forces have struggled for months in retaking the city as they face tougher than expected ISIS defenses surrounding the city. A decision has also been made to send F-15 fighters to Incirlik, Turkey to complement a dozen A-10 aircraft that recently rotated into the base. The presence of both aircraft will ramp up the number of airstrikes in Syria.