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US Orders Special Operations Forces to Syria


FILE - U.S. special forces soldiers.

FILE - U.S. special forces soldiers.

A small team of American ground troops will deploy to northern Syria to assist opposition groups in the fight against Islamic State militants.

These would be the first U.S. ground forces sent to Syria for more than a raid or a specific mission.

The White House said Friday that the president had authorized fewer than 50 U.S. special operations forces to coordinate Syrian local fighter movements with the U.S.-led coalition efforts.

The U.S. troops deployed to Syria will provide "some training, some advice and some assistance" to those fighting IS extremists, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

"This is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago," Earnest said, adding that the "core" of the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Syria remained “building the capacity of local forces on the ground.”

WATCH: US to Send Special Operations Forces to Syria

'True intent'

The U.S. troops will enter Syria in the next few weeks and stay in the country for no more than 60 days at a time, according to a senior defense official. They will be based at a "quasi-headquarters" of local Syrian forces — Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen fighters — to help with tactics, operational planning and logistics.

"We need to get on the ground, meet them,” said the senior official. "There's nothing like the face-to-face contact."

Another senior U.S. official, speaking in an interview with VOA, said the special operations forces would stay "relatively close enough to the border" with Turkey so they could be pulled out quickly if needed.

The "true intent" of putting Americans in Syria, he told VOA, is to give the Syrian groups guidance on "basic level planning." There are about 17 tribal factions striving to remove Islamic State fighters from the militant group's headquarters in Raqqah. That effort needs coordination, he said, and the U.S. forces will be there to help “draw in the sand” how units can move forward as one force against the enemy.

A senior defense official said the U.S. troops would not be involved in unilateral U.S. raids or joint raids with Syrian forces. However, she would not rule out the possibility of “adjusting” their role in the future.

Russian strikes

The decision to place U.S. troops in Syria raises fears of potential attacks not only from Islamic State forces but also from Russian airstrikes. U.S. officials have said Russian warplanes are mainly targeting moderate rebels battling forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but do occasionally hit Islamic State forces.

The U.S. special operations group will assist anti-Islamic State Syrian forces who are based away from where Russian planes have struck or would need to strike, according to a senior defense official.

"I think the Russians have quite significant visibility on what happens in and around Syria," she said. "That became very, very clear during our negotiations over these safety protocols."

The official added that the United States had not notified the Russians where U.S. troops will operate — nor did it plan to communicate to Russia their location in northern Syria — but would be "open" to potentially talking to the Russians if it was needed to keep the Americans safe.

More warplanes to Turkey

The U.S. is also increasing its air power over Syria, sending more warplanes to NATO's Incirlik Airbase in Turkey.

“We are looking at some increases to the capabilities at Incirlik,” General Philip Breedlove, the top military officer at NATO and the commander of U.S. European Command, told reporters Friday at the Pentagon ahead of the White House announcement.

While details are still being discussed, the additions at Incirlik will “provide some increased support” to the anti-IS mission, according to Breedlove.

A senior defense official said 12 A-10 warplanes have already arrived at Incirlik, with the hope of adding about a dozen F-15 warplanes there. The goal is to “thicken air operations in northern Syria” with more planes and more intelligence assets developing targets, she said.

Members of the IS extremist group have become infamous for their beheadings and other brutal tactics aimed at indiscriminate targets, including other Muslims who do not share their beliefs. The group's leaders have said their intent is to establish an Islamic "caliphate" and to maximize the territory it controls in the Middle East.

Iraq task force

Reporters at the White House were told that President Barack Obama additionally approved consultations with Iraqi leaders to establish a special operations task force to bolster efforts aimed at defeating IS leaders and networks.

The move will first require Iraqi approval and will not be considered a “serious enhancement,” according to a senior defense official.

The official said the U.S. is also increasing assistance in Iraq through combined arms training, breaching training and providing counter-IED (improvised explosive device) equipment to Iraqi forces.

'Good progress' vs ‘dangerous downward slope’

The White House said the U.S. has made "good progress" in Iraq and Syria when working closely with effective partners on the ground, and now has enhanced its ability to partner with those forces.

As the United States increases its military effort against Islamic State, officials stressed that increased diplomatic efforts also are underway to reach a political solution in Syria — including the current multinational talks in Vienna, where Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting with diplomats from Iran and Russia, the two main allies of Assad.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans criticized Friday’s decision to send 50 U.S. troops into Syria.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision was a big shift in policy that could place the U.S. on a “potentially dangerous downward slope into a civil war with no end in sight.''

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the move an “insufficient step.”

“Such grudging incrementalism is woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face,” McCain said.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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