The White House announced today that 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. This will be the first time Americans will be deployed openly on the ground there. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Obama ordered the deployment of fewer than 50 commandos to help coalition forces coordinate with local troops. Saying the troops would train, advise and assist local forces, Earnest insisted their role should not be described as a “combat mission,” reports the Toledo Blade on Friday. Obama has steadfastly said he would not put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. The addition of special operations forces marks a shift from that commitment.
Stating the U.S. was overhauling its strategy in Iraq and Syria and would conduct unilateral ground raids if needed to target Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Ash Carter hinted at the possible changes earlier this week. 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 U.S. will also be sending additional aircraft, including F-15 fighters and A-10s, to the Incirlik air base in Turkey, likely repositioning them from other spots in the region.
According to NBC News, Earnest called the additional forces an “expansion” but not a “change” in U.S. strategy against ISIS. He was unable to detail what the special operators will do, citing security concerns. Which is unusual because this administration has a bad habit of telling everything. Ernest also didn’t deny the suggestion that the increase in forces would not turn the situation around in Syria
The Obama administration has been trying to figure out how to better equip moderate Syrian forces to step up their fight against ISIS, especially since Russia has been doing the heavy lifting in the conflict with airstrikes. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said the expected announcement made clear the White House was feeling the pressure of a “failed policy” against ISIS.
“I’m concerned that the administration is trying to put in place limited measures — too late — that are not going to make a difference,” he told NBC News. “I don’t see a strategy towards accomplishing a goal, I see an effort to run out the clock without disaster.”
While this is being called a training and advisement mission by the White House, Defense Secretary Ash Carter referred to a U.S.-backed raid to free ISIS hostages that cost the life of a Delta Force commando, as “combat.” Carter also warned the Senate Armed Services Committee to expect more such raids. And that the Pentagon would be stepping up attacks against ISIS — including through “direct action on the ground” in Iraq and Syria. Given repeated assurances from Obama that U.S. troops in the region would not engage in combat, Carter’s remarks immediately raised eyebrows.