HANOVER • US President Barack Obama yesterday announced the biggest expansion of American ground troops in Syria since the civil war there began, saying he would dispatch 250 special forces soldiers to help local militia build on successes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The new deployment increases United States forces in Syria sixfold to about 300. While the total US ground force is still small in comparison with other American deployments, defence experts said it could help shift the momentum in Syria by giving more Syrian fighters on the ground access to US close air support.
Announcing the decision in Germany at the end of a six-day foreign tour, Mr Obama said the move followed victories over ISIS that clawed back territory from the hardline Sunni Islamist group.
"Given the success, I've approved the deployment of up to 250 additional US personnel in Syria, including special forces to keep up this momentum," Mr Obama said in a speech at a trade fair in the northern city of Hanover.
It was his last stop on a trip that has taken him to Saudi Arabia and Britain.
"They're not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they continue to drive ISIL back," he added, using another acronym for ISIS.
The US military has led an air campaign against ISIS since 2014 in both Iraq and Syria, but the campaign's effectiveness in Syria has been limited by a lack of allies on the ground in a country where a complex, multi-sided civil war has raged for five years.
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel sitting in the audience, Mr Obama also urged Europe and Nato allies to do more in the fight against ISIS.
"Even as European countries make important contributions against ISIL, Europe, including Nato, can still do more," Mr Obama said ahead of talks later in the day with Dr Merkel and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy.
European countries have mostly contributed only small numbers of aircraft to the US-led mission targeting ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Obama also made an impassioned plea for European unity in the face of rising populism and scepticism, warning that this was a "defining moment" for the continent.
"A strong and united Europe is a necessity for the world," he said.
Visiting a region reeling from a migration crisis, economic stagnation and facing the prospect of Britain abandoning the European Union, Mr Obama warned that "progress is not inevitable".
Contrasting the prosperity of Europe today with the wars and hardship of the last century, the American leader called on Europeans to reject the "us-versus-them" politics that has fuelled the rise of the far right in countries from Poland to France.
"Perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who is not European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved," he said, a day after the anti-immigration far right triumphed in a presidential vote in Austria.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE