The United States is set to deploy troops on the ground in Syria for the first time to advise and assist rebel forces combating ISIS, the White House said Friday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the U.S. would be deploying “less than 50” Special Operations forces, who will be sent to Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria. The American troops will help local Kurdish and Arab forces fighting ISIS with logistics and are planning to bolster their efforts.
The deployment of U.S. Special Operations forces is the most significant escalation of the American military campaign against ISIS to date.
The Special Ops troops will first be deployed to northern Syria to help coordinate local ground forces and U.S.-led coalition efforts to fight ISIS, the senior administration official said. The local forces in that area have been the most effective U.S. partners in confronting ISIS.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected early criticism that the small Special Ops force would not be sufficient, noting that they are an “important force multiplier anywhere around the world they are deployed.”
“The President does expect that they can have an impact in intensifying our strategy for building the capacity of local forces inside of Syria for taking the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country,” Earnest said, using another acronym for ISIS. “That has been the core element of the military component of our strategy from the beginning: building the capacity of local forces on the ground.”
Earnest said that this key element of U.S. strategy in confronting ISIS hasn’t changed with Friday’s announcement.
He was also careful to insist: “These forces do not have a combat mission.”
The first group of Special Operations forces headed into northern Syria will come from the United States and could be on the ground within the month, according to a senior defense official.
Once the troops get there, they will be mainly based at an unofficial headquarters facility where representatives of Syrian Arabs, Kurds and other groups are located. The official would not disclose the location due to security concerns.
The troops will remain there for anywhere from weeks to months at a time, the official said.
The President has approved a current cap of less than 50 troops, with the first contingent expected to be about two dozen. But more could be sent, the official said.
These troops are not expected to go on raids or into combat, according to the current plan. However, they have the right of self-defense and could seek permission if needed to go into the field.
There will be additional Special Operations forces available for raids against targets in both Syria and Iraq when high-value ISIS targets are identified, the official said.
The U.S. support for the anti-ISIS fighters has a crucial goal of making them capable of challenging ISIS control of its unofficial capital, Raqqa. The effort is to make them able to isolate, take control, and “ultimately hold” the key city, the official said. There is no prediction of when that might be possible.
The U.S. will also boost its military footprint in confronting ISIS in Syria by deploying A-10 and F-15 fighter jets to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. And the U.S. is also eying the establishment of a Special Forces task force in Iraq to boost U.S. efforts to target ISIS and its leaders, the administration official said. President Barack Obama has also authorized enhancing military aid to Jordan and Lebanon to help counter ISIS.
America has bombed targets in Syria since September 2014 without stopping ISIS, and it has largely failed in a mission to recruit and train moderate rebels in Syria to take on the terror group. In recent months, the U.S. has also bolstered its aid to local forces, air-dropping weapons, ammunition and other supplies to rebel forces inside Syria.
Obama has long resisted an American military presence on the ground to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria but has reluctantly escalated U.S. involvement in that fight over time since launching the military effort in 2014.
The number of U.S. military forces in Iraq has swelled to more than 3,500 since Obama first announced the deployment of up to 300 American military advisers to Iraq in June 2014.
U.S. Special Ops have previously conducted some secretive missions on the ground in Syria as well. But the 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, the militant Islamist group which now controls broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The troops are set to be deployed to Syria in the coming days, according to these officials.
The decision comes on the heels of the first death of an American military service member in the fight against ISIS. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died last week in Iraq as he and other American Special Operations forces conducted a raid to rescue hostages held by ISIS.
The troops to be sent to Syria are not expected to serve on the front lines with rebel forces and, according to a U.S. official, they will rotate in and out of Syria from the existing U.S. base in Irbil, Iraq.
But they are entering a very hot combat zone and have the right to engage the enemy if they come under fire. They could also join Syrian and Kurdish forces on raids if they get explicit permission from Washington.
The Syrian Kurdish fighting force in northern Syria welcomed the decision to deploy U.S. troops to assist them but reiterated the need for more assistance and weaponry to fight ISIS.
“We have experience fighting ISIS and I think the whole world has seen as evidence of that the areas that we currently hold in Syria. We hope that this assistance will evolve from all our different friends and allies. We need all types of assistance but first and foremost weapons are primarily our most important need,” said Mohamed Rasho, spokesman for the political wing of the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting force.