In a move that critics says fulfills long-held warnings of "mission creep" and amount to throwing "gasoline on a fire," the Obama administration on Friday announced that U.S. ground troops will now be deployed inside Syria.
In strategic leaks to various media outlets, the Pentagon made clear the president's plan to send approximately 50 Special Operations soldiers inside the war-torn country. Reports also note that expanded ground operations will also be taking place in neighboring Iraq.
"US Special Ops headed to Syria to 'advise and assist.' This should end really well." —Jeremy Scahill, investigative journalistUnnamed U.S. officials reportedly "stressed" to Reuters that the new boots-on-the-ground in Syria were "not meant to engage in front-line combat but rather to advise and assist moderate rebels." One official told Reuters the key role of the troops would be "logistical" and designed, the news agency reported, to "ensure that weapons and other supplies are delivered to the moderate forces whom the United States supports."
The news was described as "predictable as it is disappointing" by the U.S. antiwar group Peace Action.
"We should know by now that the first law of military conflicts is escalation," said Jon Rainwater, a spokesperson for the group. "That’s why sending these troops into battle should trouble all Americans. With the 'no boots on the ground' promise broken there’s no telling how many U.S. troops will ultimately be sent to Iraq and Syria."
An official announcement from the White House or the Pentagon is expected later on Friday.
According to CNN:
The deployment of U.S. Special Operations forces is the most significant escalation of the American military campaign against ISIS to date.
The U.S. Special Operations forces will first be deployed to northern Syria to help coordinate local ground forces and U.S.-led coalition efforts to fight ISIS, the senior administration official said.
The U.S. will also boost its military footprint in confronting ISIS in Syria by deploying A-10 and F-15 fighter jets to an airbase in Turkey. And the U.S. is also eying the establishment of a Special Forces task force in Iraq to boost U.S. efforts to target ISIS and its leaders. President Barack Obama has also authorized enhancing military aid to Jordan and Lebanon to help counter ISIS.
The U.S. has bombed targets in Syria since September 2014 without stopping ISIS, and it has largely failed in a mission to recruit and train moderate rebels in Syria to take on the terror group. In recent months, the U.S. has also bolstered its aid to local forces, air-dropping weapons, ammunition and other supplies to rebel forces inside Syria.
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The announcement for military escalation comes as Russia, the U.S., and other regional powers, including Iran, met in Vienna, Austria to initiate a new round of diplomatic efforts aimed at ending Syria's civil war and countering the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.
Writing for The Intercept, journalist Nick Turse writes that while the deployment is being "portrayed by the administration as an intensification of the current strategy and enhancing 'efforts that are already working,'" the order is a "clear escalation of the conflict for the president who has previously said, 'I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.'"
"Adding U.S. ground troops is just throwing gasoline on the fire. Instead, we need sustained diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war and we need to significantly increase humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict." —Jon Rainwater, Peace ActionSince Obama first announced the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria in 2014, critics have warned that such tactics would likely lead to "mission creep" in the two countries. As the number of troops in Iraq has steadily grown over the last year and a half, this will be the first acknowledged presence of U.S. soldiers in Syria—a country against which the U.S. has not officially declared war.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill was among the immediate critics, offering this sarcastic tweet following Friday's announcement:
US Special Ops headed to Syria to "advise and assist." This should end really well.— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) October 30, 2015
"Over a year into the U.S.-led bombing campaign what have we accomplished?" asked Rainwater. "The United States has spent over $4.75 billion on over 6,059 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Watching the tragic refugee crisis spreading, we know that more bombing isn’t making the Syrian people any safer. And as the United States drops thousands of bombs, angering thousands of people in two Middle Eastern nations, it’s not making the American people any safer either. On the contrary, a U.S.-led attack in Syria, with the inevitable civilian casualties, strengthens recruitment for ISIS. Adding U.S. ground troops is just throwing gasoline on the fire. Instead, we need sustained diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war and we need to significantly increase humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict."
Meanwhile, Peter Van Buren, a retired 24-year veteran of State Department and sharp critic of U.S. foreign policy in the region, said on Friday that President Obama has much to answer for now that he has betrayed earlier and repeated vows not to expand military operations in Syria and Iraq.
"In August 2014," writes Van Buren, Obama told the nation we needed to re-intervene in Iraq "on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie."
Now, Van Buren continues, we are "being told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland."
But serious questions remain, he says, and the U.S. public deserves answers and a sensible explanation. "We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie. So please address us, explain why what you are doing in [Iraq and Syria]. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie."