Obama takes new tack, deploys troops to Syria

Several dozen special operations troops will only advise and not play a direct combat role in open-ended mission

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama announced on Friday that he had ordered several dozen special operations troops into Syria for the first open-ended mission by US ground forces in that country, deepening American involvement in a war he has tried to avoid for more than four years.

While the deployment was small in scale, it was large in importance for a President who had refused to commit US ground forces inside Syria beyond quick raids. White House officials said the troops would advise local forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and not play a direct combat role, but they left open the possibility of sending more in the future.

The move was meant to bolster diplomatic efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry who, on Friday, reached an agreement in Vienna with countries with opposing stakes to explore "a nationwide ceasefire" and ask the United Nations to oversee the revision of the Syrian Constitution and new elections.

The accord represented the first time all the major outside participants had agreed on the start of a political process to bring the war to an end. But a truce remained elusive and the President's military move was the latest incremental step into the expanding conflict in Syria and next-door Iraq.

The troops heading to Syria will number "fewer than 50," the White House said, but Pentagon officials said even those numbers would be useful in coordinating efforts with Kurdish forces. The White House insisted this was not a case of mission creep. "The mission has not changed," said Mr Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. "These forces," he added, "do not have a combat mission."

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that the US decision to deploy special forces in Syria would make cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries more important.

"I am sure that neither the US nor Russia want (the conflict) to become a so-called proxy war," Mr Lavrov told reporters after the multilateral talks. "But it is obvious, for me, that the situation makes the task of cooperation between the militaries more relevant."

In addition to the special operations deployment, Mr Obama authorised sending A-10 and F-15 warplanes to Incirlik airbase in Turkey.

The shift represents "a kind of Goldilocks policy - not too hot and not too cold", said Mr Aaron David Miller, a vice-president with the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars. "Keep your eye on ISIS, keep your forces out of Russia's way and yet enhance your profile after Moscow has raised theirs."

The diplomatic progress reported in Vienna came after seven hours of heated negotiations, but it amounted to more of an aspiration than a settlement.

Mr Kerry and the other diplomats set no deadline for either the ceasefire or a new Constitution and elections that would follow, and it remained unclear whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was not invited, or the rebels seeking to overthrow him, will agree.

The diplomats will meet again in two weeks to expand on the basic principles issued on Friday night, including a commitment to keep Syria together as a single nation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Obama takes new tack, deploys troops to Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe