- Troops to work with local forces `as a general rule,' he says
- Move comes a week after U.S. announced more forces for Iraq
President Barack Obama’s decision to send 250 additional U.S. military personnel to Syria was made at a time of both optimism and frustration in the effort to defeat Islamic State.
While U.S. officials say they want to capitalize on recent progress in reclaiming territory from the terrorist group, local forces are far from ready to retake its strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. At the same time, peace talks aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war have broken down.
Obama “has to show that he’s providing some leadership” on Syria, Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group in New York, said in an interview. “He knows it is the slipperiest of slopes, and he’s avoiding it from becoming too steep.”
The move will increase the number of U.S. service members operating in Syria to about 300. That will include both special operations forces and support personnel, according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. He told reporters Monday that the Americans will advise Sunni Arab and Turkmen forces as well as Kurds in Syria that have worked most closely with the U.S. so far.
The president announced the additional troops Monday during a speech in Hanover, Germany, before a meeting with the leaders of the U.K., Germany, Italy, and France where he urged allies to step up their military involvement as well.
The limited size of the force that Obama is sending lets him say he’s standing by his refusal to deploy substantial ground combat troops to the region, attempting instead to bolster local fighters. It comes a week after Obama approved increasing U.S. forces deployed to Iraq and allowing them to deploy closer to the front lines.
“It’s not going to be enough to fundamentally change the situation,” Robert Blecher, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, said in an interview. “This administration has shown itself to be skeptical about what U.S. military force can accomplish in the Middle East.”
Still, Obama stopped short of ruling out some direct military action by the Americans in Syria.
Asked if the forces will engage in any “search-and-kill missions,” Obama said in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News, “You know, I’m not going to go into details of all the mission sets that they’re involved with. As a general rule, their role is not to engage directly with the enemy but rather to work with local forces that is consistent with our overall policy throughout.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Hanover that the U.S. is looking to “accelerate progress” made in recent months.
“What we’ve seen is the small team that we put into Syria several months ago has been very effective in serving as a force multiplier because they are able to provide advice and support to the forces that are fighting against ISIL on the ground in Syria,” Rhodes said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Steven Cook, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that “while the Iraqis are trying to figure out their politics and a military strategy to liberate Mosul, the United States can focus attention on the Syrian piece.”
Obama expressed frustration during a visit to Saudi Arabia last week that the long-disputed composition of the Iraqi government remains unsettled. “They’ve got a lot on their plate,” he said. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering.”
Setbacks in the territory Islamic State controls in Iraq and Syria over the past year haven’t stopped it from carrying out or inspiring deadly attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, California.
The breakdown, at least for now, of the fragile cease-fire in Syria casts doubt on the possibility of a political solution to the country’s bloody civil war, which has helped fuel the rise of Islamic State and left 400,000 people dead, according to the chief United Nations envoy to the talks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has refused calls to step down and has benefited from a Russian bombing campaign that targeted his enemies.
The main Syrian opposition group last week quit the negotiations as fighting began to ramp up in parts of Syria where the cease-fire had largely held since February.
The added U.S. forces in Syria could serve as “a signal to Russia of U.S. willingness to invest more resources on the ground in the Syrian theater,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
The troop increase also comes as the president’s allies in Europe have been coping with a flood of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The struggling peace process -- and not the additional U.S. troops -- was the main topic of the talks between Obama and his European counterparts on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
“It’s clear that everybody needs to engage, but the focus was very strongly on a political solution and the question of how to proceed,” Merkel told reporters after the meeting.