U.S. President Barack Obama plans to deploy dozens of special operations forces to northern Syria to advise opposition forces in their fight against Islamic State, a major shift and a step he has long resisted to avoid getting dragged into another war in the Middle East.
The number of special operations troops in Syria would be fewer than 50, said a senior administration official, speaking ahead of an announcement on Friday by the administration. One U.S. official said the number was likely to be in the range of 20 to 30 but could not provide details.
The decision by Obama, deeply averse to committing troops to unpopular wars in the Middle East, would mark the first sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria and raise the risk of American casualties, although U.S. officials stressed the forces were not meant to engage in front-line combat.
The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up America's effort against Islamic State, particularly after the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to Islamic State in May and the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.
The planned deployment adds to an increasingly volatile and complex conflict in Syria, where Russia and Iran have increased up their military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in the four-and-a-half year civil war.
Russia said when it began air strikes last month that it would also target the Islamic State militant group, but its planes have hit other rebel groups opposed to Assad, including groups backed by Washington.
The new U.S. strategy to assist in the fight against Islamic State in Syria will be accompanied by a new special operations force in Erbil in northern Iraq, "intensified" cooperation with Iraqis in retaking Ramadi and expanded security assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, a senior congressional source said.
The U.S. special operations forces in Syria would be stationed in rebel-held territory, coordinate air drops to rebels and resupplying those forces as they move toward Raqqa, the declared capital of Islamic State, U.S. officials told Reuters.
They could also help coordinate air strikes from the ground, the officials said.
Regardless, the introduction of U.S. forces on the ground in Syria exposes the U.S. campaign to a new level of risk after more than a year of limiting the mission in Syria to a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State fighters.
The U.S. sources said the move reflected a wider strategy of strengthening rebels Washington sees as moderate even as it intensifies its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to end to the Syrian civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died.
To further counter Islamic State, Obama has also authorized deploying A-10s and F-15 aircraft to Incirlik air
base in Turkey, the senior administration official said.
The news came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting at Syrian peace talks in Vienna.
The talks include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are adamantly opposed to his remaining in power after a civil war that has driven millions abroad as refugees and displaced millions more inside the country.
'TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE'
Some in Congress applauded the move, although longtime Republican critics of Obama's foreign policy described it as overdue and likely not enough to change the course of the war, which has only grown more complex since Russia started its own campaign of air strikes.
"Absent a larger coherent strategy, however, these steps may prove to be too little too late. 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," said Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East studies at University of Oklahoma, said that the U.S. moves were unlikely to fundamentally change the dynamics on the ground in Syria, nor to significantly accelerate diplomacy.
"This is tinkering around the edges and it does up America's role and it will allow America to go to the Iraqis and go to the Russians and everybody and say we are doing more, but it doesn't fundamentally change anything," Landis said.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration was considering deploying some U.S. special operations forces inside of Syria to advise moderate Syrian opposition fighters for the first time and, potentially, to help call in U.S. airstrikes.
The United States has been considering extending support to thousands of Syrian rebel fighters to help them push Islamic State from a strategic pocket of Syrian territory along the Turkish border and advance toward Raqqa, U.S. officials say. [L1N1222TP]
Although the United States has dispatched special operations forces into Syria in the past, including an operation in May that killed an Islamic State leader, Obama’s decision paves the way for longer-term deployments of American ground forces.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle, Julia Edwards and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Frances Kerry)