Obama orders US special forces to 'assist' fight against Isis in Syria
White House to deploy a small number of special operations forces in advisory role, in apparent breach of Obama promise not to put 'boots on the ground'
Dan Roberts in Washington and Tom McCarthy in New York
30 October 2015
Barack Obama has ordered up to 50 special operations troops to Syria, US officials announced on Friday, in an apparent breach of a promise not to put US "boots on the ground", to fight Islamic State militants in the country.
The Pentagon has also been "consulting" with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to establish a special operations taskforce to fight Isis "leaders and networks" across the Syrian border in Iraq, a senior administration official told the Guardian on Friday.
But the White House insisted that its overall strategy to combat Isis remained the same and said the special forces troops would be helping coordinate local ground forces in the north of the country and other non-specified "coalition efforts" to counter Isis rather than engaging in major ground operations.
"The decision the president has made is to further intensify our support for our forces who have made progress against Isis," the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said at a news conference.
The move came as diplomats worked  in Vienna to restart talks on a political transition that would remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. At the discussions with leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, framed the troop announcement as part of a shifting policy that included this major diplomatic push to initiate talks that would bring about a political transition in Syria.
"We are intensifying our counter-Daesh campaign and we are intensifying our diplomatic efforts to end the conflict," Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Isis. "That is why President Obama made an announcement about stepping up the fight against Daesh."
The injection of US special forces in Syria seemed at odds with earlier statements Obama has made about not placing troops in the country.
"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," Obama said  in an address in September 2013.
Asked about that "boots on the ground" statement, Earnest said the quote was taken "out of context".
"The quote that you pulled there is a very different situation," Earnest told a reporter. "He [Obama] said he was not prepared to put boots on the ground to take out the Assad regime. That was precisely the mistake the previous administration had made ... to take down Saddam Hussein."
The US military has conducted narrow ground missions inside Syria, such as one in May in which special forces killed an Islamic State commander in a raid the Pentagon said took place in the east of the country.
A $500m effort over the last two years by the United States to train Arab opposition forces in Syria failed. General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, told the Senate last month that it had resulted in only a handful of fighters actively battling the jihadi army. "We're talking four or five," Austin said.
Thousands of US forces are deployed in neighboring Iraq -- where local forces are also fighting groups identifying themselves as Isis -- in what the White House has described as a training and advisory role. The US troops lead and assist local fighters and help coordinate airstrikes against enemy positions. The Pentagon says the troops have rarely, if ever, participated directly in combat against Isis fighters. Last week a US soldier participating in a raid on a compound near the city of Kirkuk, Iraq, to free dozens of Iraqi prisoners from captivity was killed.
The change in approach in Syria coincides with Russian intervention against a variety of rebel groups fighting Assad and a decision to invite Iran to the Vienna peace talks.
Administration sources also told the Guardian that the US would be enhancing military assistance to Jordan and Lebanon to help their governments fight Isis.
The forces were to be supported by an additional deployment of A-10 "Warthog" attack aircraft and F-15 jets to Nato's Incirlik base in Turkey, officials said.
Former US diplomat Robert Ford, who was ambassador to Syria from 2010-14 and is now a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, warned that the United States appeared to be committing to a relationship with a Kurdish group that has been recently accused of human rights abuses and is tied with groups on the US's own lists of terror organizations.
"The key armed element in north-eastern Syria is the Syrian Kurdish militia named the YPG," Ford said. "Everyone needs to understand that this means that the Americans are going to be working much more closely with this Syrian Kurdish group, which is loosely affiliated with the PKK, a broader pan-Kurdish group which is on our terrorism list.
"The legalities there, we must be getting close to the edge of the envelope."
Ford pointed to an Amnesty International report last week accusing the YPG of significant human rights violations against Sunni Arab tribal residents in the region.
"We need to be very careful of how we deal with this group," Ford said, adding that the US insertion in northern Syria should not be mistaken for participation in the main war between Assad's forces and those attempting to overthrow him, Ford said.