President Obama is sending a small number of Special Operations troops to northern Syria, marking the first full-time deployment of U.S. forces to the chaotic country.
The mission marks a major shift for Obama, whose determination to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been balanced by an abiding concern that U.S. troops not be pulled too deeply into the intractable Syrian conflict.
The latest deployment will involve fewer than 50 Special Operations advisers who will work with resistance forces battling the Islamic State in northern Syria but will not engage in direct combat, Obama administration officials said.
“This is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
The move, which the president’s national security team recommended late last week, reflects Obama’s growing dissatisfaction with the halting progress in Iraq and Syria and his commanders’ sense that the Islamic State has significant vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
The troops are expected to begin arriving over the next month in Syria, where their main focus will be advising Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces who have fought to within 30 miles of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, said a senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence. The U.S. troops are expected to remain largely at the “headquarters level,” where they will assess the local forces and help plan military operations to put continued pressure on Raqqa and a 60-mile-long stretch of the Syria-Turkey border.
A successful attack on Raqqa would mark a major victory for the forces battling the Islamic State.
The Special Operations troops, even though they will be focused on advising U.S. allies and not direct combat, still face a real threat. “This is a dangerous place on the globe, and they are at risk,” Earnest said. “There is no denying it.” The deployment, like the recent commitment to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan after 2016, will be essentially open-ended, he said.
The introduction of U.S. advisers follows Russia’s stepped-up involvement in the war in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opening of a hastily convened meeting of diplomats in Vienna on Friday to discuss ways to end the bloody conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he has ordered his country’s military to strike Islamic State forces, but White House officials said that the Russians are indiscriminately targeting rebel forces arrayed against the regime. Russia’s military actions on behalf of the Assad regime have complicated U.S. efforts to help rebels in northern Syria, where U.S. officials are worried that American-backed forces will feel compelled to shift their focus from battling the Islamic State to helping their beleaguered allies fight Assad.
The Russian operations have, in particular, sapped momentum from a push by Syrian Arab fighters to drive the Islamic State from the contested stretch of the border between Syria and Turkey, U.S. officials said. In the past few weeks, U.S. airstrikes in Syria have dropped off dramatically, prompting concern from local fighters allied with the Americans.
The deployment of Special Operations forces, along with new U.S. warplanes headed to Turkey, suggests that the airstrikes will soon intensify. The White House plans to send A-10 ground attack planes and F-15 fighter jets to Incirlik air base in Turkey, where they will be able to support ground operations against the Islamic State. The heavily armored A-10s, which fly low and slow over the battlefield, are built to back ground troops engaged in combat.
The planes will also focus on attacking the Islamic State’s supply lines that connect its base in Syria to its fighters in Iraq. Russia was not made aware of the deployment of U.S. troops into the country, the senior defense official said.
The new deployment of ground troops and planes drew a mixed reaction from Democrats, who worried about the deepening U.S. involvement in the war, and Republicans, who said that the small U.S. force was insufficient and disconnected from a broader, coherent strategy.
“These steps may prove to be too little, too late,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I do not see a strategy for success, rather it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the latest moves “yet another insufficient step in the Obama administration’s policy of gradual escalation.”
Obama first asked for a broader set of options in Iraq and Syria when he visited the Pentagon in July. That meeting came two months after Iraqi army troops were driven from Ramadi, about 80 miles west of Baghdad, by a much smaller Islamic State force.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the administration’s new plan for Iraq and Syria would focus on aiding the slow-moving Iraqi army assault on Ramadi, the military operations around Raqqa and more raids on Islamic State leaders in both countries.
Obama also spoke Friday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to outline U.S. plans to intensify support for the Ramadi operation and an increase in raids aimed at the Islamic State leadership in the country.
Administration officials said that the U.S. and Iraqi governments are working on plans to establish a joint Special Operations task force to target Islamic State leaders and their network. The raids would be conducted with the support of U.S. Special Operations forces backed with U.S.-supplied intelligence.
The move was foreshadowed this week by Carter, who told lawmakers that the military’s elite counterterrorism forces would increase the pace of raids like the one in northern Iraq that freed as many as 70 captives being held by the Islamic State and resulted in the death of Army Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler.
Senior defense officials said Obama remained open to deploying Apache attack helicopters and forward air controllers, who are trained to move with Iraqi forces and call in airstrikes, if needed for future operations.
More costly and ambitious measures in Syria, such as no-fly zones or buffer zones that would require tens of thousands of ground troops, did not receive the backing of Obama’s top policy advisers and weren’t among the options forwarded to the president. Many Republicans and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton have said they favor a no-fly zone in Syria.
Even as the White House announced the measures in Iraq and Syria, senior administration officials played down hopes that the additional forces would fundamentally change the circumstances in either country.
“The president has been quite clear that there is no military solution to the problems that are plaguing Iraq and Syria,” Earnest said. “There is a diplomatic one.”