A Syrian army tank fires during fighting in Jobar, Damascus on Oct. 14.

A Syrian army tank fires during fighting in Jobar, Damascus on Oct. 14. Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP

Pentagon to Send Special Operations Troops to Syria

After months of looking at new options, the Obama administration 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.

“The President has authorized a small complement—fewer than 50—of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to deploy to northern Syria, where they will help coordinate local ground forces and Coalition efforts to counter ISIL,” a senior Obama administration official said in a statement to Defense One, ahead of a formal White House announcement expected later Friday.

More F-15 strike fighters and A-10 Warthog close-air-support jets are on the way to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey, bulking up a small contingent of A-10s that arrived less than two weeks ago, the Pentagon said on Oct. 20.

The administration official also said discussions to establish a special operations task force are under way with Iraqi officials in Baghdad, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. And 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.

The administration insists 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 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.”

President 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.

“At the President's direction, the Administration has been looking at ways to intensify our counter-ISIL campaign. In that effort, 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.  We have always been clear that this would be a multi-year campaign, and that continues to be the case. ISIL is a determined enemy.”

But 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, President 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. Last week, the first U.S. servicemember died in combat in Iraq since 2011 as part of an operation to rescue hostages.

The administration is 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 are also ramping up our diplomatic efforts to pursue a political resolution … The talks in Vienna represent a positive step forward in which all of the key parties are at the table to discuss the imperative of our efforts to pursue a political resolution,” the administration official said. “We will not defeat ISIL by military means alone.”

Still, the president’s opponents and allies in Congress are calling more loudly for a more cohesive, broader national security strategy.

“A more serious effort against ISIS in Syria is long overdue,” House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement. “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.“

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.