Small U.S. Special Operations teams will be sent into northern Syria to partner with rebel groups in a strictly advisory capacity in what will be the first sustained boots-on-the-ground presence of American forces in that country, the Pentagon and the White House said Friday.
The total number of Special Ops troops deploying to Syria from the U.S. will be fewer than 50 and they will work out of what passes as headquarters for the Syrian Kurd, Syrian Arab and Syrian Turkomen groups that the U.S. has been supporting with supplies and airstrikes, officials said.
The deployment has not yet begun but should be completed in about a month, the officials said, and the teams will likely be rotated out on a 60-day basis. The teams will be reporting to and monitored by senior U.S. commanders at the Joint Operations Center in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
The mission will be "to help coordinate with local forces in a strictly advise and assist mission" against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria with a primary goal of pushing south to take Raqaa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital. a senior Defense Department official said on background.
"They will not be going out and doing joint operations with those forces" similar to the joint Delta Force-Kurdish raid earlier this month on the northern Iraqi town of Hawija in which Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed, the official said.
However, the senior official did not rule out that the mission would eventually evolve to allow the Special Ops teams to join the rebels on raids. "We'll see what more is possible but for the forseeable future they will not be accompanying" local forces in attacks on ISIS, the senior official said.
The official said, however, that U.S. raids into Syria by Special Ops teams based in Iraq were still an option. The U.S. has thus far acknowledged two such raids -- one was an unsuccessful attempt to free hostages and the other killed top ISIS commander Abu Sayyaf. "We will continue, when necessary, unilateral raids into Syria," the senior officials said.
The Special Ops teams also will not be acting as JTACs, or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, to call in airstrikes in support of the rebel groups, the senior official said: "We're not envisioning them operating as JTACs."
However, U.S. air assets backing the anti-ISIS fighters from Incirlik airbase in Turkey, about 70 miles from the Syrian border, will be boosted significantly.
In recent weeks, 12 A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft have arrived in Incirlik to join six F-16 Fighting Falcons that were sent there earlier. In addition, about a dozen F-15 fighter jets will be sent to Incirlik in the coming weeks, the senior official said.
The senior official stressed that the buildup at Incirlik was not a prelude to establishing a no-fly zone over northern Syria as advocated by Republican critics of the Obama administration's strategy. "This is not keyed in any way to the start of a no-fly zone," the senior official said.
The senior official skirted the question of whether the U.S. Special Ops teams would be working with the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), although the Kurdish Rudaw news service said the YPG would coordinate with the Americans.
The YPG is considered the most effective of the rebel groups operating against ISIS but they are opposed by Turkey, which has charged that the YPG is allied with the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), a group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S.
The U.S. intends to continue supplying rebel groups in Syria with ammunition and possibly small arms, the senior official said, but "we do not intend to provide any ammunition to the YPG." The official added that "I don't rule it out in the future."
At a press briefing earlier, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the initial announcement on the Syria deployment and said the troops "will be offering some training some advice and some assistance. These forces do not have a combat mission."
"This is not in any way to diminish the risk that they will face. They are at risk and there's no denying that. Nobody is more keenly aware of that than the commander-in-chief," Earnest said.
The Special Ops teams "will not be leading the charge to take the hill" but "rather will offer advice to local forces who would take the hill."
Earnest engaged in lengthy exchanges with reporters on whether the Syrian deployment meant that Obama was scrapping his restriction on boots-on-the-ground combat for U.S. troops in Iraq or Syria.
Earnest echoed previous statements from Defense Department officials that the mission in Iraq and Syria was not combat, but U.S. troops could at times find themselves in situations that could be defined as combat.
"We're not going to implement a military strategy to take down" the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Earnest said, and Obama "does not contemplate a long-scale combat operation in Iraq or Syria."
"I think if we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground," Earnest said.
Despite White House assurances that the Syria mission will not involve combat, "the real question is what are going to be the rules of engagement" for the deploying troops, said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst for the Center for American Progress.
Korb, a former assistant Defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan, also said that the announcement of the Syrian deployment could be meant to boost the bargaining position of Secretary of State John Kerry in talks on a political solution for Iraq and Syria.
The White House announcement came as Kerry began a long-odds push for a ceasefire in Syria in talks in Vienna with representatives of 20 countries, including Russia and Iran.
Before leaving for Vienna, Kerry said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that "The challenge that we face in Syria today is nothing less than to chart a course out of hell," Kerry said in his speech.
"While finding a way forward on Syria will not be easy -- it's not going to be automatic -- it is the most promising opportunity for a political opening we have seen," he added.
Even before the Syrian deployment was officially announced, Republicans in Congress were assailing Obama's plan as "too little, too late."
"A more serious effort against ISIS in Syria is long overdue," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"Absent a coherent strategy however, those steps may prove to be too little too late. I do not see a strategy for success. Rather, it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock" on his time in office.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chariman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that "Unfortunately, this limited action is yet another insufficient step in the Obama administration's policy of gradual escalation."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.