After months of looking at new options, the White House will send in ground forces.
The U.S. will send a few dozen special operations troops into the Syrian maelstrom — likely the first of more ground forces and a tacit acknowledgement of the difficulty of turning perpetual counterterrorism operations into anything other than an endless war.
“Fewer than 50 troops” will deploy in coming weeks to be “headquartered” in northeastern Syria with a “wide range of groups,” including Syrian Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds, according to a senior defense official. While the forces will be fully equipped to defend themselves, the official said Friday, their mission is “strictly advise and assist.”
The forces will not be conducting joint operations like last week’s rescue operation that saw the first U.S. servicemember killed in combat in Iraq since 2011. Neither will the special operators be conducting unilateral raids to go after high-value intelligence targets, as first seen in Syria in the spring when a U.S. team killed a high-level ISIS leader, captured his wife, and seized a trove of intel. Nor will they direct close air support or call in airstrikes — at least that’s the current plan, the official said.
The troops will be deployed for less than 60 days at a time, said the official, who declined to specify which groups they will work with, or where they will be located.
“We will not be establishing our own, U.S.-led headquarters … we will go to where they are,” the official said. “Our vision, at least at the outset, is for them to go for small amounts of time and to one location. I don’t anticipate they’ll be moving from place to place with regularity.”
“They are not going to be out and about in advise and assist in the way we are in Iraq. This is to get guys on the ground and get eyes on … to see what more is possible. This is a start,” the official said.
A senior Obama administration official told Defense One in a statement earlier Friday that more F-15 strike fighters and A-10 Warthog close-air-support jets are on the way to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey. The senior defense official said a dozen A-10s are already at Incirlik, and they’re finalizing a package of roughly the same number of F-15s. The aircraft will support an effort to “thicken” air operations in northern Syria and to secure the border between Syria and Turkey.
The administration official also said discussions to establish a special operations task force are underway with Iraqi officials in Baghdad, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The defense official said that would largely consist of adding to the special operations already up and running in Iraq.
The U.S. is also looking to bolster its military assistance to the countries of Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in a large share of Syria’s refugees since the civil war there erupted more than four years ago.
In July 2015, President Obama came to the Pentagon to get an update on the status of the U.S. military’s campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He told the room he was willing to hear all options -- so long as they would produce sustainable, strategic success, a senior defense official told reporters Friday.
Those options were the beginning of this new strategy in the war against the terrorist group, which will focus in Iraq on helping security forces retake Ramadi and Bayji and then eventually Mosul. In Syria, the immediate objective is to take and ultimately hold ISIS’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.
Still, the official acknowledged: “It would be a fool’s errand at this point to say we’re not going to adjust again, because I’m here telling you about an adjustment.”
‘I Will Not Put American Boots on the Ground in Syria’
Still, the White House insisted it is a subtle shift, and not the opening of a new chapter for the reluctant war-time president.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted in a briefing ahead of the Pentagon official that Obama maintains his opposition to the large-scale, long-term combat deployments seen under his predecessor George W. Bush.
“He doesn’t believe that is something we should do again, that is why our special ops personnel inside of Syria have a very different mission,” Earnest said.
“What we have focused on is what is their mission — they are not in a combat mission,” he continued. “Our military personnel will be in a train-advise-and-assist mission. It means it will not be their primary responsibility to lead the charge up the hill…Will they be in the vicinity, offering that advice and assistance? Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised that’s the case.”
Obama pledged nearly 15 months ago the U.S. fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would be narrow and limited. “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” he said in September 2013. “I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."
But the White House has also said consistently that despite that pledge, its strategy would be responsive to the facts on the ground. “We have been focused on intensifying elements of our strategy that have been working, while also moving away from elements of our approach that have proven less effective,” the senior administration official said. “Let me re-affirm that our core objective of degrading and destroying ISIL has not changed.”
Yet the announcement comes amid a steady drip of developments that critics and supporters alike are calling mission creep. The Pentagon recently scrapped and reworked the main thrust of its strategy to train and equip a ground force to fight the Islamic State in Syria, rather than put U.S. boots on the ground there. Shortly after, Obama announced America’s longest war will be even longer, dropping his previous withdrawal plan for Afghanistan to leave at least 5,500 troops there indefinitely.
The administration is also framing the deployment as part of a broader push, along with a renewed diplomatic effort, to find a political resolution to the Syrian civil war. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Vienna this week for peace talks with more than a dozen countries. Just ahead of the White House announcement, reports indicated that Iran has backed a six-month transition period followed by elections to decide whether Bashar al-Assad will remain in power. The talks will continue into next week.
“We will not defeat ISIL by military means alone,” the administration official said.
Still, the president’s opponents and allies in Congress are calling more loudly for a more cohesive, broader national security strategy.
“Absent a larger coherent strategy, however, these steps may prove to be too little too late,” House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement. “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.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a close ally of the president, said, “We are now one year, two months, and 23 days into an unauthorized and executive war.”
“It is time for Congress to do its most solemn job – to debate and declare war,” he said. “It is also time for the Administration to detail to the American people a comprehensive strategy to bring both the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which are metastasizing around the globe, to a peaceful end.”
For more on the dynamics inside Syria, read this explainer on the many factions in the fight there. Or how the history of no-fly zones doesn’t have the best track record in recent conflicts. And see also why U.S. lawmakers are pressing the White House to admit more Syrian refugees in the coming months.