The White House officially “announced” on Friday that small teams of U.S. special forces would be deployed in Syria, totaling up to 50 commandos on the ground.
The new strategy had already been announced earlier this week, though without detail, by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and had previously been discussed off-the-record by Defense Department officials.
The Administration ensured in its announcement to claim President Obama’s promise to never deploy ground troops in Syria remains intact despite this deployment. From a report by the Wall Street Journal:
The White House has approved the deployment of small teams of U.S. special-operations forces to locations in northeastern Syria, expanding America’s direct role on the ground in support of local fighters as they prepare for a new military campaign against Islamic State militants in their stronghold in Raqqa, officials said.
The new deployment would amount to the first sustained U.S. ground presence in Syria. A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. role in Syria would, nonetheless, remain “narrow,” adding: “We don’t have any intention to pursue long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those we’ve seen in the past in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Up to 50 U.S. commandos will be involved in the new mission under President Barack Obama’s authorization, officials said, marking the start of a sharp escalation in the level of U.S. involvement in the fight against Islamic State. Initially, two small teams will evaluate the security situation on the ground and link up with local Syrian forces there, they said.
The American commandos will operate under what the Pentagon calls an “advise and assist” mission. But military officials said they couldn’t rule out the possibility that the forces would be pulled into occasional firefights with Islamic State given their proximity to the confrontation line. The officials cited as an example last week’s raid in Iraq in which a U.S. commando was killed.
The Boston Globe adds that A-10 ground attack planes and F-15 fighters will join the air campaign against ISIS running out of Incirlik air base in Turkey.
As CNN notes, U.S. special forces troops have been running secret missions on the ground in Syria for some time, but this deployment “marks the first permanent presence of U.S. ground troops in Syria since the U.S. began leading an international effort last year to confront ISIS.”
An unnamed senior official told NBC News the move would be portrayed as a “shift” but not a “change” in U.S. strategy.
The involvement of U.S. special forces in the recent raid on an ISIS compound in Iraq appears more strategically significant in retrospect, as does the collapse of President Obama’s initiative to train and equip friendly Syrian rebels to serve as ground-force proxies.
“I’m concerned that the administration is trying to put in place limited measures — too late — that are not going to make a difference,” House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) told NBC. “I don’t see a strategy towards accomplishing a goal, I see an effort to run out the clock without disaster.”