U.S. combat troops are headed into Syria

WASHINGTON — Ending days of speculation and semantics, the Obama administration announced Friday morning that a small number of U.S. ground troops are being deployed inside Syria.

“The President has authorized a small complement — fewer than 50 — of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to deploy to northern Syria, where they will help coordinate local ground forces and Coalition efforts to counter ISIL”, an Obama administration official said in a statement.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford said earlier in this week that the U.S. military has been working with coalition partners to intensify efforts against ISIL.

As a result, the administration official said, “the President has also authorized a number of additional steps, including:

  • Deploying A-10s and F-15s to Incirlik airbase in Turkey;
  • Consulting with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Government on the establishment of a Special Operations Force (SOF) task force to further enhance our ability to target ISIL leaders and networks; and
  • Enhancing our counter-ISIL military assistance to Jordan and Lebanon.”

The official also said in the statement, “the Administration has been looking at ways to intensify our counter-ISIL campaign. In that effort, we have been focused on intensifying elements of our strategy that have been working, while also moving away from elements of our approach that have proven less effective.”

One of those elements was a $500 million program to train and equip what the administration called “moderate” elements of the Syrian opposition to fight against President Bashar al-Assad.

The goal of the program, which began in mid-2014, was to locate, vet, train and equip 5,400 fighters – 3,000 by the end of 2015.

But in mid-September of this year, General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) informed Congress that only “four or five” of the first 54 U.S. trained moderate Syrian fighters were actually in the fight against ISIL.

Against the backdrop of increasingly tense U.S.-Russian relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin ridiculed the effort saying, “it would have been better to give us $500 million. At least we would have used it more effectively from the point of view of fighting international terrorism.”

Quietly bristling at Putin’s mockery, Obama officials have ramped up diplomatic efforts to pursue a political resolution.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. official “has been consulting with key coalition partners and the President has spoken to a number of our key partners, including the leaders of Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

Russia’s derision has complicated an already thorny situation on the ground in Syria. Ostensibly accusing the U.S. of being afraid to put troops on the ground, Russia claims to have launched hundreds of successful sorties on targets inside Syria since its entry into the conflict on Sept. 30.

The U.S. has complained of unprofessional military behavior by Russian pilots, whom it says have flown in an unsafe manner. Of greater concern to U.S. officials, U.S. intelligence indicating 80 percent of the targets Russian aviation assets have struck are not related to ISIL.

It’s not clear exactly how many U.S. Special Forces will be deployed inside Syria, but the U.S. official indicated they will be inserted to take advantage of improved U.S. relations with existing local anti-ISIL forces in Northern Syria.

“Specifically, we have enhanced our ability to partner with these forces – advising them and helping to facilitate their activities; providing air support for their ground offensives; and directly equipping them so that they are more effective, the official said.

Since the conflict began in 2012, more than 200,000 Syrian’s have been killed. The struggle began with a civil war against Assad. More than four million have fled the country setting off a surge refugees into Europe that hasn’t been seen since World War II.

The Islamic State complicated the situation in 2014 when it exploded onto the scene in Iraq and Syria, unleashing upwards of 30,000 terrorist in the region.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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