Has Barack Obama broken his promise to a war-weary public not to put US boots on the ground in Syria? The White House insists the broader strategy to confront Islamic State hasn’t changed, but critics warn of mission creep.
US President Barack Obama had hoped to be a president who shifted the US away from years of war, but as the conflict in Syria has morphed and Islamic State has spread he again shifted course in Syria on Friday, sending in a small group of special forces.
Fewer than 50 US special forces are headed to Syria to support local forces against Islamic State as the US adjusts its strategy, prompting criticism both from those who called the move insufficient and those who fear a broader military entanglement.
The White House on Friday sought both to downplay the announcement, with Obama himself remaining quiet, while at the same time insisting the small contingent could make a real difference in the chaotic fight where past efforts have failed.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the capability and capacity of our special operations forces to be a force multiplier anywhere around the world where they are deployed,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest declared.
Since the US-led air campaign in Syria began last year, efforts have been hampered by the lack of a reliable partner on the ground to call in strikes, notes Frederic Hof, a former Obama advisor on Syria now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“Deploying a handful of US special operations forces to Syria will not change this situation significantly,” he said. “It is a band-aid of sorts, although a potentially useful one.”
US officials have faced questions for months about efforts to train and equip Syrian rebels, belatedly admitting the effort had trained just a handful of fighters and eventually revamping the programme.
The decision to send in special forces to assist Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria comes after a US review of efforts against Islamic State.
US officials insist the review has resulted not in a complete change of strategy, but only an effort to intensify its existing strategy of relying on local ground forces and avoiding a new US ground war.
The president “does not contemplate a large-scale, long-term combat operation on the ground,” Earnest said.
He repeatedly told reporters this was not a combat mission.
But the death of a US soldier, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, in a hostage-freeing raid in Iraq last week underscored the danger facing even a handful of US troops that risks entangling the US more deeply should something go wrong. The presence of US forces in Syria puts them closer not just to Islamic State fighters, but also Russian airstrikes that have targeted US-backed rebels.
Obama has repeatedly pledged not to enter into a ground war in Syria, declaring in 2013 when addressing Assad’s use of chemical weapons: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.” As the situation changed and he began an air war over Syria last year, he again declared, “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
Officials insisted the deployment was not the first step down a slippery slope of “mission creep” that would entangle the US in a broader ground operation.
“If you’re not willing to adjust as needed, to focus on what works, and be willing and be brave enough, frankly, be courageous enough to say, ‘well, that’s not to going to work so we’re not going to do that as much anymore,’ well then you’re setting yourself up for failure,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton called the move long overdue, but called himself “mystified” over the White House’s muddy message about the mission.
“It sounds like he’s describing something out of a George Orwell novel,” he told CNN. “We clearly have troops on the ground who are fighting in close quarters with our enemy, the Islamic State.”
Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Service Committee, also expressed skepticism about the White House plan coming without a broader strategy.
“It seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock,” he said.
The several dozen US forces will face a difficult task in assisting, advising and training splintered rebel groups that are poised outside the unofficial Islamic State capital of al-Raqqa. They face an alphabet soup of groups among the Kurds in the region as well as disparate group being loosely referred to by the US military as the Syrian Arab coalition.
Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said earlier this week the US strategy is focused on helping Iraqi forces retake Ramadi, pressuring al-Raqqa and conducting raids against Islamic State.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly. Whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” he said.
Earnest would not rule out that the effort could expand. Asked directly whether more troops could be sent to Syria later, he replied, “I don’t want to try to predict the future here.”