U.S. President Barack Obama plans to deploy a small number of special operations forces to Syria to advise rebels Washington deems moderate, U.S. sources said on Friday, a step he has long resisted to avoid getting dragged into another war in the Middle East.
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Obama was expected to send fewer than 60 special operations troops, said congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. One U.S. official said the number was likely to be in the range of 20 to 30 but could not provide details.
U.S. officials stressed the forces were not meant to engage in front-line combat but rather to advise and assist moderate rebels. One official said their key role would be "logistical" to ensure that weapons and other supplies are delivered to the moderate forces whom the United States supports.
The sources said the move, expected to be announced later on Friday, reflected a wider strategy of strengthening moderate rebels in Syria even as Washington intensifies its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to end to the four-and-a-half year Syrian civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died.
The U.S. decision comes after Russia escalated its military role in Syria in September to support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia said it would also target the Islamic State militant group, but its planes have hit other rebel groups opposed to Assad, including groups backed by Washington.
The new U.S. strategy to assist in the fight against Islamic State in Syria will be accompanied by a new special operations force in Erbil in northern Iraq, "intensified" cooperation with Iraqis in retaking Ramadi and expanded security assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, a senior congressional source said.
To further counter the militant group, Obama has also authorized deploying A-10s and F-15 aircraft to Incirlik air base in Turkey, a senior administration official said.
The announcement was expected as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting at peace talks in Vienna.
The talks include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are adamantly opposed to his remaining in power after a civil war that has driven millions abroad as refugees and displaced millions more inside the country.
Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East studies at University of Oklahoma, said that the U.S. moves were unlikely to fundamentally change the dynamics on the ground in Syria, nor to significantly accelerate diplomacy.
"This is tinkering around the edges and it does up America's role and it will allow America to go to the Iraqis and go to the Russians and everybody and say we are doing more, but it doesn't fundamentally change anything," Landis said.
"This is more of ... what Obama has been doing for five years, which is trying to keep his critics on their heels by doing the minimum amount necessary while at the same time making sure that America does not get sucked into (Syria)," he added, saying he saw little chance of Obama significantly raising the number of U.S. forces in his remaining 15 months in office.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration was considering deploying some U.S. special operations forces inside of Syria to advise moderate Syrian opposition fighters for the first time and, potentially, to help call in U.S. airstrikes.