Obama Sending 250 More US Troops to Syria; In Iraq, Footprint Has Been Growing for Two Years

By Patrick Goodenough | April 24, 2016 | 11:05 PM EDT

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford meets with trainers at a base in Besmaya, south of Baghdad, on April 21, 2016. Almost 4,000 Iraqi and peshmerga soldiers are being trained at fives sites across Iraq. (DoD photo/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama, speaking in Germany on Monday, announced that he plans to send another 250 troops to Syria, the latest in a series of incremental deployments of forces over the past two years to help in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).

“A small number of American Special Operations forces are already on the ground in Syria, and their expertise has been critical as local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas. So given the success, I've approved the deployment of up to 250 additional U.S. personnel  in Syria, including special forces,  to keep up this momentum.

“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 that continue to drive ISIL back.”

Obama said the terrorists will learn “your hatred is no match for our nations united in the defense of our way of life.”

The announcement amounts to a significant increase of the number of U.S. personnel in Syria, reaching around 300.

The administration said last fall that “up to 50” special forces troops would head for northern Syria to help what it called “moderate opposition forces” in their fight against ISIS. In mid-December Obama revealed that a small group was on the ground.

An internationally-brokered ceasefire, covering the regime and rebel groups apart from ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, has been faltering. Obama and others are urging the parties to respect the truce and return to negotiations aimed at ending the drawn-out civil war.

The aim of U.S. intervention is to press home the fight against ISIS, not to confront President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Before traveling to Germany on Sunday, Obama told the BBC in Britain that it would be “a mistake” for the U.S., Britain or other Western countries to send ground troops into Syria – “to overthrow the Assad regime.”

“In order for us to solve the long-term problems in Syria, a military solution alone – and certainly us deploying ground troops – is not going to bring that about,” he said.

Even if not targeted by the so-far modest U.S. deployment in Syria, the regime has been leery. After the initial announcement of “up to 50” troops, it warned that the presence of American forces in Syria without its permission would violate the U.N. Charter.

In contrast to Syria, whose government’s legitimacy is widely questioned, U.S. troop deployments in neighboring Iraq have been carried out in coordination with Baghdad.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has been steadily climbing since Obama first said in June 2014 that up to 300 military advisers would be sent there “to assess how we can best train, advise, and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

A month later the 300 was doubled, and by August 2014 another 130 troops were on their way, taking the total to more than 700, with then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stressing that the deployment “is not a combat-boots-on-the-ground operation.”

Troops were based both in Baghdad, to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities and at joint operations centers in the capital and Irbil. Their roles included training, advising, intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance missions.

 

In September 2014, Obama authorized another 475 troops, taking the number to above 1,200. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, gave assurances that there were no plans for U.S. combat troops to fight against ISIS.

The following month, special forces Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid on an ISIS prison, becoming the first American killed in action in Iraq since 2011.

By November 2014, an additional authorization of 1,500 took the new total to more than 3,000, and the following June another 450 troops were on their way.

“This will bring our total up to 3,550 authorized across Iraq,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Elissa Slotkin said on June 10. “These forces, again, will provide an advisory, training, and support role.  They are not conducting offensive ground combat operations.”

In December 2015, more special forces operators were approved for Iraq, although no numbers were given. By March 2016, the Pentagon was acknowledging that the cap of 3,870 U.S. troops was sometimes exceeded due to forces rotating in and out, or on temporary assignments.

Also in March, U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin became the first American service member to be killed in an attack launched by ISIS. Jihadist fighters struck a coalition base near Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city, which ISIS captured in June 2014.

Earlier this month, the 3,870 U.S. troop cap was raised to 4,087, with the deployment of yet another 217 personnel, in support of Iraqi troops gearing up for a battle to retake Mosul.

In his interview with the BBC, Obama indicated he believes the campaign against ISIS will outlast his presidency.

“Prosecuting the campaign is critical, and although I don’t anticipate that in the next nine months it will be finished, because, unfortunately, even a small pocket of extremists, if they’re prepared to die themselves, can still wreak havoc on many of our cities,” he said.

“But I do think that we can slowly shrink the environment in which they operate and take on strongholds like Mosul and Raqqa [ISIS ‘capital’ in Syria] that are the beating heart of their movement.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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