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, multiple officials said Friday.
A senior administration official said that the U.S. would be deploying “fewer than 50” U.S. Special Operations forces 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 Americans military campaign against ISIS to date.
The U.S. Special Operations forces 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 U.S. will also boost its military footprint in confronting ISIS in Syria by deploying A-10 and F-15 fighter jets to an airbase 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. President Barack Obama has also authorized enhancing military aid to Jordan and Lebanon to help counter ISIS.
The U.S. 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.
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.
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 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.”