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US to Put Special Forces on Ground in Syria to Fight Islamic State

The US is committing Special Operations to Syria as part of an effort to revitalize a stalled strategy against the Islamic State.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As part of an effort to revamp its strategy against the Islamic State (IS), the White House is sending fewer than 50 U.S. Special Forces troops into northern Syria to coordinate with local fighters battling the group on the ground.

The change was just one of several the Obama administration announced Friday, but it got the most attention, as it marks the first time that US ground troops will be officially deployed to Syria for more than just a raid or hostage rescue.


Despite this significant development, the White House said its strategy in Syria remains the same.

"The mission hasn't changed," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Anticipating accusations of "mission creep," Earnest insisted the US troops that embed with local groups in Syria will not be participating in a "combat mission," but that he didn't want to downplay the risk of the mission.

"This is a dangerous place on the globe and they are at risk, and there's no denying that," Earnest said.

Looking through the White House's semantic acrobatics, it's clear that these US special forces will be entering a dangerous and confusing battlefield, and could very likely find themselves in combat situations. But the White House is determined to maintain the distinction between this and what it sees as large-scale ground operations like those undertaken in Afghanistan and Iraq under President George W. Bush.

"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."

The White House's announcement came as diplomats from more than a dozen countries held talks over Syria in Vienna, Austria.

The White House is also opening the door to sending more troops to Iraq, including a rapid response force to enhance US efforts to support Iraqi security forces and counter the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, a senior administration official told Vice News.


Earnest told reporters at the White House that he had no announcements to make on further US troop deployments to Iraq, but said he "wouldn't rule that out." Today, there are roughly 3,300 US troops in Iraq. They are tasked with training and advising Iraqi forces and protecting U.S. facilities there.

President Barack Obama spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi via telephone on Friday morning about the new US plans, Earnest said.

In Iraq, part of the mission could be to help conduct raids like the one carried out by US and Kurdish special forces on October 22 against an Islamic State prison in Iraq. One American soldier was killed during the joint operation that freed 69 IS hostages.

The changes the White House announced on Friday will put even more US forces at risk, but pressure has been building on the Obama administration to take a more aggressive approach against IS.

As part of the strategy overhaul, President Barack Obama plans to authorize the deployment of Air Force A-10s and F-15 combat aircraft to Turkey's Incirlik air base, the White House announced Friday. The numbers of each aircraft are still being determined.

The US will also continue to work with Turkey to push ISIS out of the area it controls along the Turkish border. Other regional partners are also part of the plan, as the US intends to step up its counter-IS support to Jordan and Lebanon too.

Related: Here's What US Boots on the Ground in Syria Really Means


In northern Syria, US special operations forces will be embedding with an alliance of Kurdish militia and Arab rebels, which calls itself the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, the senior administration official said.

The SDF is mainly comprised of Syria's main Kurdish militia — known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG — but it also includes Arab groups operating under the name "The Syrian Arab Coalition."

By increasing its support to the Syrian Kurdish fighters, the US is sure to create more friction with Turkey, whose military fired on YPG positions in the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad on Sunday.

Earnest said there are "moderate opposition forces" just 45 kilometers outside of Raqqa.

The US-led coalition has already been supporting the Kurdish forces with airstrikes for months, and in early October dropped 50 tons of ammunition to fighters with the Syrian Arab Coalition. The alliance says it's planning to advance toward Raqqa for a major assault on the Islamic State's de facto capital.

The senior administration official said the role of the US special operations forces will be to coordinate these local groups with the US-led coalition's anti-IS efforts.

Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said this may be the most significant change to the US approach.

"We know that the United States has conducted hostage rescue raids but this is a much broader agenda," he said. "We also know the president's deep aversion to any US action that may lead to 'mission creep,' so I imagine this approach was adopted out of dire necessity – and not particularly enthusiastically."


The White House's announcement reflects the president's desire to intensify those parts of the US strategy that are showing progress, while shifting investment away from efforts that weren't yielding results, Earnest said.

In early October, the White House abandoned its year-long effort to train Syrian rebel fighters outside of the country and then return them to the battlefield. The $500 million program failed to produce more than a handful of fighters.

Watch the VICE News documentary Jihadists vs. the Assad Regime: Syria's Rebel Advance: 

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid the groundwork for these changes when they appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. Both men admitted they were frustrated with the current pace of operations.

"The changes we're pursuing can be described by what I call the three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi and raids," Carter said, promising more US-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

Together, the policy changes mark a significant departure from the approach the US has pursued so far, and in many ways they're an admission that the fight against IS has not gone as expected.

Just a year ago, General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, told reporters that "Iraq is our main effort, and it has to be, and the things that we're doing right now in Syria are being done primarily to shape the conditions in Iraq."


The thinking behind this Iraq-first approach was that the US had a partner in Iraq — Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — whereas it had no one to work with in the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.

"But the reality is if you focus on IS in only one country, you can inadvertently allow a safe haven in the other, and that's something that just isn't sustainable," said Matthew Spence, who until earlier this year served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

"This is a shift that makes a lot of sense, primarily because you need to look for your keys where you lost them, not where the light is," Spence told VICE News. "For some time, the border between Iraq and Syria has been effectively meaningless, and with ISIS operating freely between the two, you need to take IS on in both countries."

The focus on Iraq up until now comes across when you look at the number of airstrikes conducted in each country. As of October 20, the US-led coalition had carried out 7,603 airstrikes against IS targets. Of those, 4,933 Iraq were in Iraq and 2,670 in Syria, according to the Pentagon.

But now, that ratio is likely to change.

The bombing campaign in Syria will grow more aggressive, according to Carter, with "a higher and heavier rate of strikes."

Specifically, the US-led coalition wants to target more senior leaders of the Islamic State, as well as the group's oil facilities. The US has been targeting both since it began airstrikes in Syria last fall.


Related: What We Learned While Embedded With Kurdish Forces Clearing the Islamic State From Hasakah

The Pentagon says strikes that have gone after high value individuals have killed roughly 70 senior and mid-level IS leaders since the beginning of May.

The US has already stepped up its bombing of IS-run oil facilities, with the US-led coalition destroying an IS oil refinery near the Eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor last week. Despite pummeling oil facilities in the early days of the Syria campaign, IS is still able to make roughly $1.5 million a day off of oil sales, the Financial Times reported earlier this month.

The US is also willing to provide more airstrikes in Iraq to help forces advance on the ground, but additional assistance will depend on Iraq making "progress towards assembling capable and motivated Iraqi forces under Baghdad's control and including Sunni elements," Carter said.

The Pentagon is jettisoning its "Iraq-first" approach just as Russia steps up its role in Syria, bombing both rebel groups that oppose Assad as well as some ISIS targets. At the same time, the Obama administration is confronting the fact that the Iraqi security forces are not making progress as quickly as the US had expected.

Carter's testimony Tuesday revealed how little progress has been made in Iraq compared to previously set expectations.

The defense secretary told the Senate panel Tuesday that once Ramadi is retaken, that will "build momentum" to "eventually go northward to Mosul," giving no indication when either battle might take place. It was just eight months ago that the Pentagon was broadcasting a plan to retake Mosul last April or May.


The American public has also noticed the lack in progress, with only 31 percent thinking the fight against IS is going well and only 27 percent believing President Barack Obama has a clear plan for dealing with the group, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll.

And both Republican and Democratic senators agreed Tuesday that the anti-IS strategy needs major reworking and expressed serious doubts about what the endgame was in Syria.

"This is a half-assed strategy at best," said South Carolina Senator

Lindsey Graham, who's also a Republican presidential candidate.

Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said it's time to consider whether the operational tempo against IS can be increased and whether US troops could play a more active role, accompanying Iraqi units into the field, "especially when direct contact with the enemy is not expected."

Follow Kate Brannen on Twitter: @K8brannen

Photo via Wikimedia Commons