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"A small number of U.S. special operations forces will be deployed to northern Syria to work with local ground forces in the fight against Islamic State militants, senior U.S. officials said Friday, marking the first time American troops will be working openly on the ground in the war-torn country.
"U.S. officials said President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of fewer than 50 commandos to help coalition forces coordinate with the local troops.
"Although the number is small, it marks an escalation of U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State, which controls a large part of northern Syria and has its self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa."
It would probably be best to phrase this as "fewer than 50 commandos (for now)," given the way officials including Defense Secretary Ash Carter have been publicly acknowledging an overhaul of our strategy in Iraq and Syria. While this first group will be "work(ing) with local ground forces," and though White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this afternoon these troops do not have a "combat mission," Carter has also spoken about the possibility of unilateral ground attacks. If that happens with any frequency, we can expect the number of U.S. troops to exceed 50 eventually. Keep in mind, the president -- as Earnest just confirmed -- is sending these troops under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. So the administration is working with a lot of latitude.
This is quite a change of heart for the president, who pledged not to put boots on the ground back in 2013 when he was making the ill-considered case for striking Syria after its dictator Bashad al-Assad crossed his ill-considered "red line":
"Many of you have asked, won’t this put on us on a slippery slope to another war? ... My answer is simple: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo."
It's a policy Obama has reiterated since then. Nevertheless, the U.S. has launched hundreds of air strikes in Syria over the past 13 months. Now we are putting troops on the ground in a country where Russia has recently joined the fray. While Washington and Moscow have sought a way to play nice in Syria's skies, our objective of backing the anti-Assad rebels against ISIS seems in conflict with Russia's objective of beating back Assad's opposition. What happens now that we will have more than just warplanes in the skies?
Godspeed to the troops heading to Syria. But let's not pretend we can be certain just how limited the role for them, and possibly many more of their fellow soldiers, is going to be.