The United States is becoming increasingly involved in the Syrian civil war. Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. Army Special Forces in northern Syria to advise rebels who are fighting against the Islamic State.
It will be the first time that U.S. military personnel have had a sustained presence in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, which has left at least 250,000 dead and has displaced millions of people. President Barack Obama is becoming less reserved in military matters, as he demonstrated two weeks ago when he postponed the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.
The deployment is modest, and will consist of fewer than 50 elite troops, according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest’s remarks at his daily press conference. But the deployment in the coming weeks represents a new turning point in Democrat Obama’s ambivalent strategy in Syria. The Pentagon said that the numbers could be increased if the deployment is successful.
The role of the U.S. Army Special Forces will be to “train, advise, and assist” moderate insurgent units that have gained the trust of Washington in their struggle against the jihadi group. The objective is to launch an offensive against Raqqah, the Islamic State group’s stronghold in Syria.
In Iraq, the U.S. has some 3,500 troops who are advising local forces. It is a number that has been on the rise with time, and Earnest didn’t rule out further increases. In Syria — like in Iraq — the troops will not have a combat mission, as the Obama administration has repeated like a mantra about its aerial campaign against the Islamic State group that started more than a year ago.
But just being deployed opens the door to having to respond to enemy fire, as happened last week in Iraq, when a U.S. soldier died in an operation to liberate a jihadi prison. “The risk they’re taking is undeniable,”* Earnest said in response to questions about the possibility that troops may have to go into combat in Syria.
The troop deployment is linked to the Department of Defense’s new strategy of support for moderate Syrian rebels. Just after recruiting the combatants, the Pentagon announced three weeks ago that it was suspending its program of training and arming its own insurgent force against the Islamic State group. The new focus consists in only choosing, training and arming the leaders of existing rebel units. These units will now receive assistance from the advisers.
It won’t be the first time that U.S. Army Special Forces have gone into Syria. This past May, they killed Abu Sayyaf, a high-ranking Islamic State commander, during a brief ground operation in the east of the country. Their presence from now on will be sustained. In the spring of 2014, a U.S. commando unit attempted without success to rescue James Foley, an American hostage held by the Islamic State group whom the group ended up killing.
The U.S. has been opposed to sending troops into Syria up until now out of antagonism toward the regime of Bashar Assad. Washington continues to call for the exit of the Syrian president, and has intensified its diplomatic efforts toward that end. Obama’s spokesman insisted that there is no “military solution” to the labyrinths of Iraq and Syria.
Unlike in Iraq, the U.S. acted in Syria without the permission of that country’s government. But Washington and Damascus have a common enemy in the Islamic State group, which is also the enemy of Moscow, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime. As of a month ago, Russia has been bombing militias opposed to Assad. These attacks have barely hit the Islamic State group.
The White House is facing a difficult balancing act, above all with respect to the tension between Obama’s promises and his strategy against the extremist group. Press secretary Earnest emphasized “the mission hasn’t changed” since Obama announced in September 2014 that the bombing campaign against the Islamic State group would be extended from Iraq to Syria.
*Editor’s note: This quote, while accurately translated, paraphrases what the press secretary actually said.