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Boots on the Ground: U.S. Special Forces Heading to Syria

Boots on the Ground: U.S. Special Forces Heading to Syria

In a dramatic shift in policy, the United States is preparing to send about 50 special operations forces to Syria within days to begin training and assisting “moderate” rebels fighting the Islamic State.

The U.S. military has sent elite forces into Syria before to conduct short in-and-out raids, but the move will for the first time keep American service members on the ground — and in harm’s way — in a four-plus year conflict that has killed over 200,000 people. It marks a significant departure in strategy for a White House that has repeatedly ruled out any U.S. “boots on the ground” in either Iraq or Syria and has bristled at any suggestion that American forces would take part in combat.

The U.S special operations forces being deployed to Syria will not play a direct combat role, at least initially, a senior defense official said Friday. Instead, the small number of commandos will focus more on advising local Arab and Kurdish rebels who are fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria. 

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Defense Department is not ruling out direct action raids in the future, but for now, “they will remain singularly at the headquarters” of the rebel groups, to ”help with operational planning.”

Still, the American forces could come under fire in their new mission, which could last weeks or months, officials said.

The focus of their effort will be to prepare the local forces to surround, cut off, retake “and ultimately hold” the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

The Islamic State militants have lost ground in areas adjacent to Raqqa in recent weeks and U.S. commanders are eager to push the advantage. A key piece of the plan will be to use ramped-up coalition airstrikes to cut off supply routes and communications between Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul, the official said, as part of a larger plan to more directly connect the anti-Islamic State fight across Iraq and Syria.

The Americans would assist with logistical needs or help call in airstrikes on Islamic State positions, and would have to fight to defend themselves if threatened.

Pentagon officials also said special forces could deploy soon with Iraqi troops to try to recapture Ramadi and other towns in western Anbar province. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Friday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss the administration’s latest plans for the war effort.

Despite the new deployment of troops, White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted that “the mission of our men and women on the ground has not changed,” and remains focused on defeating the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. He also rejected concerns that the American forces could come under attack from Russian aircraft, which have been bombing opposition fighters in daily air raids.

U.S. troops will be “alongside opposition forces who are fighting ISIL,” Earnest said, and “right now Russia’s military efforts are not focused on ISIL, they’re focused on propping up the Assad regime.” ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.

Defense officials expressed similar confidence over the safety of the American commandos. While Washington has not informed Moscow of its deployment plans, the senior official said the Pentagon “is open to speaking” with the Russians about it, if necessary.

The decision to escalate the U.S. fight against the Islamic State came as Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in Vienna with his counterparts from Russia and Iran to try to find a diplomatic end to the bloody conflict, which has forced millions of Syrians to flee the country. The expanded American military role could provide Washington more leverage in future negotiations on Syria, depending on the outcome of operations near Raqqa.

But the U.S. plan to work with Kurdish and other rebel fighters in northeastern Syria could cause more friction with Washington’s ally and fellow NATO member Turkey, which has been alarmed at territorial gains by Kurdish forces in Syria. Ankara views any expansion of Kurdish-held territory on its border as a threat to the Turkish state.

U.S. officials have said privately that any advance on Raqqa would be led by Arab rebels rather than by Kurdish forces.

Republican lawmakers, who have urged Obama to take stronger military action against both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, dismissed the move as a paltry step that should have come much sooner.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) called the deployment “too little, too late,” to make a real difference in the fight. “I do not see a strategy for success,” he said, “rather, it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock.”

And Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said “this limited action is yet another insufficient step in the Obama administration’s policy of gradual escalation. Such grudging incrementalism is woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face.”

Other lawmakers, however, complained that the country was plunging into a wider war without Congress debating and approving the decision.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a member of the Senate’s Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said the deployment of troops to Syria is “not authorized” by Congress, and the proposed authorization language the White House had sent to Capitol Hill months ago has yet to be taken up for a vote.I think the Congress is doing what it really does well, which is criticize, sit on the sidelines but not take responsibility,” King said.

The risks faced by American troops “advising” their counterparts who are battling the Islamic State were underscored last week, when a U.S. Army Delta Force operator, 39-year-old Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, was killed while fighting alongside Kurdish forces to free prisoners from an Islamic State prison in northern Iraq. He was the first American combat death in Iraq since 2011.

Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened the door to conducting more such raids, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that in both Syria and Iraq, “we won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.”

In a similar vein, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told the same Senate panel he would be open to embedding U.S. forces with Iraqi combat units “if it had operational or strategic impact and we could reinforce success.”

Neither man mentioned embedding troops in Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria since September 2014, but has been unable to dislodge the group from its stronghold in the city of Raqqa despite claims of having killed at least 20,000 fighters.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon cancelled its $500 million effort to train and equip 5,000 Syrian rebels by the end of this year, acknowledging that fewer than 100 fighters remained active on the ground. Instead, officials said, future efforts would focus on helping existing rebel groups rather than trying to build a new force.

This story was updated Friday with new details and quotes.

Photo credit: U.S. Army