WASHINGTON – 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.
The stepped-up U.S. military involvement in Syria also comes amid a redoubling of diplomatic efforts to reach a resolution to the multi-year conflict between the Syrian government and rebel forces, which ISIS has exploited to expand its base in the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been holding meetings in recent days with U.S. allies in the region and recently agreed to give Iran a role in the peace talks, which also include Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Russia have supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even as Assad has been accused of committing war crimes against his own people, including the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.
Russia entered the military fray earlier this month by deploying forces to Syria and launching a bombing campaign that it claims has been targeting ISIS. But the locations of Russian airstrikes have led U.S. military officials to say they believe the Russian effort is aimed more at bolstering Assad’s hold on power than fighting ISIS.
Russia’s military involvement in Syria has been greeted in Washington with a mixture of caution and criticism, with Obama warning Russia earlier this month that its airstrikes in Syria would suck it into a “quagmire.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN Thursday that he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t have a long-term plan for his country’s military involvement in Syria, saying he thinks “he is kind of winging this day to day.”
The U.S. and Russia have in recent weeks held a series of deconfliction talks to find ways to prevent accidents or misunderstandings between U.S. and Russian jets sharing the skies over Syria.
Russian jets, though, have not been operating in the skies above northern Syria where the U.S. is now deploying ground forces.
Obama has faced steady and unrelenting criticism of his leadership in the fight against ISIS, with Republicans and even some Democrats consistently accusing him of lacking any clear strategy to fight the militant Islamist group, which has threatened attacks against the U.S.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, gave a tempered response Obama’s decision to send ground troops to Syria.
“A more serious effort against ISIS in Syria is long overdue,” he said in a statement Friday. “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.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has also called for a more aggressive approach, said Friday in a statement that it is “time for the Administration to propose a unified strategy that addresses the intertwined challenges posed by ISIL and President Assad,” with Friday’s decision only addressing “half the problem — ISIL, but not Assad.”
Kaine also renewed his calls for Congress to vote on an authorization of the use of military force against ISIS, which it has yet to do. The U.S. has been acting in Syria and Iraq on legal grounds based in the authorization of military force against al Qaeda elements.
2016ers weigh in
Sen. Bernie Sanders “expressed concern” over Obama’s decision in a statement Friday evening.
“Sen. Sanders expressed concern about the United States being drawn into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war which could lead to perpetual warfare in that region,” spokesman Michael Briggs said. “The senator believes that the crisis in Syria will be solved diplomatically, not militarily.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has staked his presidential campaign on his hawkish foreign policy views, called the decision to deploy Special Operations forces “an incremental change that will not change the conditions on the ground.”
“In the eyes of the enemy this is weakness. In the eyes of our allies this is unreliability. ISIL is not going to be intimidated by this move,” Graham said Friday on MSNBC. “You know, they’re all in for their agenda: the caliphate and their view of the world. President Obama is not all in when it comes to degrading and destroying ISIL and this just reinforces that.”
Graham also renewed his calls for a no-fly zone over Syria to address the refugee problem and to properly train rebel forces.
GOP presidential contenders have called for everything from tens of thousands of U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq to the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria.
In an interview with CNN last week, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP presidential candidate, called not just for the establishment of a no-fly zone but also a safe zone where moderate rebels “can organize, train, equip and ultimately present a credible alternative to Assad for the future of Syria.”
Rubio also called for Special Operations forces to be embedded with local forces.
“Only America can convene Sunni forces from what I believe needs to be a combined Sunni force of Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Sunnis in Iraq, Sunnis in Syria to confront a radical Sunni movement and defeat them militarily. They will need our help in convening it,” Rubio told CNN’s Jamie Gangel. “But it doesn’t involve a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iraq.”
By Barbara Starr and Jeremy Diamond, CNN
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Tim Lister, Dan Merica and Cassie Spodak contributed to this report.