The U.S. is deploying a small contingent of special operations forces into northeastern Syria to help local opposition groups beat back the Islamic State, despite President Barack Obama’s repeated declarations that he would not put “boots on the ground” in the war-ravaged country.
The White House dismissed suggestions Friday that the decision represents “mission creep,” saying that the forces – fewer than 50 – will not be combat troops but will intensify ongoing efforts to “train, advise and assist” local forces.
“The mission has not changed,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “We are intensifying it; we’re ramping up the support that we are providing to those local forces. But the mission of our men and women on the ground has not changed.”
But coming one week after an American special operator was killed in a Kurdish-led raid in Iraq, the decision raised a host of questions, from what authority the U.S. is relying on to send troops into Syria to which groups the U.S. is helping and how the action will be perceived by the U.S.’s Turkish allies, who are opposed to the Syrian Kurdish militia that has been the primary ally in Syria against the Islamic State.
The White House refused to say with whom the special operations forces will be working, but the Kurdish YPG militia, with the help of U.S. air power, has pushed the Islamic State from as much as 6,800 square miles of northern Syria. The biggest Syrian Arab militia in the Raqqa region, the Raqqa Revolutionaries, has not been contacted by the U.S. military and has not received any military aid, a spokesman said.
Turkey views the YPG’s stated ambition of creating a contiguous Kurdish-run entity in northern Syria, which it calls Rojava, as a threat to its own security.
The arrival of U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria carries risks of confrontations – with the Islamic State, which will immediately fix on them as a high-value target, as well as the governments of Syria and Turkey.
While the YPG effectively controls the region, the Syrian regime still has forces in two cities, as well as an airport in Qamishli, which recently was closed down for civilian use and turned over to the Syrian military. Moving from Iraq to the YPG-held towns of Tal Abyad and Kobani would likely require any U.S. troops to drive through a government-controlled traffic circle in Qamishli.
It was not clear whether the U.S. government would ensure that there was no accidental exchange of fire between the U.S. forces and Turkey, which said this week that its forces have bombed YPG units trying to cross the Euphrates River. Turkey views the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency for greater autonomy for the 20 percent of Turkey’s population that is Kurdish.
Turkey has warned of dire consequences if any U.S. arms or other supplies intended for the YPG end up in PKK hands.
Earnest said the special forces could face dangerous situations and will be equipped to defend themselves, but they would not be “leading the charge” in a combat situation.
“If we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground,” Earnest said. “The responsibility that they have is not to lead the charge to take a hill, but rather to offer advice and assistance to those local forces about the best way they can organize their efforts to take the fight to ISIL.”
Obama in September 2014 dramatically broadened what had been a limited U.S. mission to help refugees threatened by the Islamic State inside Iraq, pledging a U.S.-led coalition to destroy the militants “wherever they exist.” But Obama, who campaigned in 2008 vowing to end the war in Iraq and resisted involvement in Syria, said then that the fight against the militants would “not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
The White House said it also will deploy A-10s and F-15s to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and consult with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and the Iraqi government on the establishment of a special operations task force.
Until these underlying political problems are resolved, American troops can help to win the battles but they will not stay won. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department special adviser for the transition in Syria and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, said deploying a handful of U.S. special operations forces to Syria would “not change this situation significantly. It is a Band-Aid of sorts, although a potentially useful one.”
The deployment of special operators, he said, at least puts some “skin in the game” to help persuade regional powers to pony up ground forces, but it’s not a major development on its own.
Some of Obama’s Republican critics who have pushed for a more muscular response to the Islamic State in Syria, including a no-fly zone in the country, said the deployment isn’t enough and could backfire by making the U.S. look weak.
Unfortunately, this limited action is yet another insufficient step in the Obama administration’s policy of gradual escalation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The Islamic State “is not going to be intimidated by this move. In fact, ISIL will see this as yet another sign of President Obama’s weakness,” said Republican presidential nominee contender Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who accused Obama of lacking a “clear strategy” to defeat the militants. “ISIL is all in for their horrific agenda and demented view of the world. Unfortunately, President Obama is not all in when it comes to degrading and destroying ISIL.”
On the left, Peace Action, which calls itself the nation’s largest peace group, also panned the move, saying the administration should instead ramp up diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.
“We should know by now that the first law of military conflicts is escalation,” said spokesman Jon Rainwater. “That’s why sending these troops into battle should trouble all Americans. With the ‘no boots on the ground’ promise broken, there’s no telling how many U.S. troops will ultimately be sent to Iraq and Syria.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., issued a tersely worded statement pointing to an evolution in the Obama administration’s military fight against the Islamic State since 15 months ago, when the president authorized “two narrow operations in Iraq” – one to protect American personnel in Kurdistan and the other to save civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.
“Since then, we have seen the United States increase troop deployment levels to more than 3,500 service members and undertake approximately 7,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria at a cost of over $4.75 billion or $11 million a day,” Kaine said.
He called on Obama to deliver a strategy that addresses not only the jihadist threat but also the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, criticizing the current policy as addressing only “half the problem.”
He also took aim at the failure of Congress to issue a new authorization for the use of military force.
“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,” Kaine said.
The White House said it has the legal authority to deploy the troops under the authorization that Congress granted a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That action gave the president the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
The Islamic State’s ties to those attacks are uncertain.
McClatchy Middle East correspondent Roy Gutman contributed from Istanbul.