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 worry 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 forces, even though they are 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, would be essentially open-ended, he said. source