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US Supports French ISIS Attacks in Syria without ‘Boots on the Ground’

This image made from video released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) shows French army jets taking off from a site in Jordan to strike at Islamic State group targets Nov. 15, 2015. (ECPAD/APTN via AP)
This image made from video released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) shows French army jets taking off from a site in Jordan to strike at Islamic State group targets Nov. 15, 2015. (ECPAD/APTN via AP)

The U.S. will work closely with France to intensify the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while avoiding American "boots on the ground," the White House said Sunday.

"We absolutely agree" with France that the horrific Paris attacks were an act of war, said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and the U.S. will stand "shoulder-to-shoulder" with France in responding.

However, "we do not believe a solution involves significant numbers of combat troops going in" to engage ISIS in a ground war in Syria and Iraq, Rhodes said on the "Fox News Sunday" program.

The U.S. has limited the role of about 3,500 troops in Iraq to training and equipping the Iraqi Security Forces. About 50 Special Forces advisers being sent into Syria will also be kept off the front lines, according to the Pentagon.

Rhodes also said that the U.S. still plans to take in at least 10,000 and possibly as many as 65,000 Syrian refugees despite calls by Republican presidential candidates and Republican Congressional leaders to cut off the program.

"We have to recognize they're (the refugees) tragic victims of this conflict," Rhodes said, adding that the U.S. would tighten vetting of the refugees in the aftermath of what appeared to be the ISIS-inspired attacks in Paris.

The Republican candidates, with the exceptions of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, have also called for a stronger response against ISIS while stopping short of recommending a combat role for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

On CNN's "State of the Union" program Sunday, Graham said that the Paris attacks "require American boots on the ground in Syria. You'll not win this war from the air."

In their debate on CBS Saturday, the Democratic candidates -- former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley -- essentially backed the current strategy and did not recommend a combat role for U.S troops.

At the G-20 economic summit in Antalya, Turkey, President Obama gave no indication that the U.S. would alter the current strategy of pressing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria while supporting local forces on the ground.

Obama vowed to help France in "hunting down the perpetrators" of the terror attacks in Paris. He said "the killing of innocent people based on a twisted ideology is not just an attack on France, not just an attack on Ankara, but an attack on the civilized world.

"We stand in solidarity with them in hunting down the perpetrators of this crime and bringing them to justice," the U.S. president said.

Obama also met on the sidelines of the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an apparent effort to coordinate with Moscow on the campaign against ISIS in Syria and efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office as part of an overall peace plan.

Previously, the U.S. has charged that the Russian air campaign had ignored ISIS while targeting foes of Assad, but a White House statement after the Putin meeting said, "Obama welcomed efforts by all nations to confront" ISIS and noted "the importance of Russia's military efforts in Syria focusing on the group."

At the Antalya meetings, European Council President Donald Tusk of Poland said that the bloodbath in Paris should serve as a catalyst for Moscow and Washington to work together.

"It should be our common aim to coordinate our actions" against ISIS, "and for sure the cooperation between the United States and Russia is a crucial one," Tusk said.

For the second time in two days, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke by phone Sunday with his French counterpart, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on closer cooperation with France against ISIS.

A Pentagon statement said that Carter and Le Drian "agreed on concrete steps the U.S. and French militaries should take to further intensify our close cooperation in prosecuting a sustained campaign" against ISIS, but the statement gave no specifics on what those steps might be.

France is already part of the U.S.-led coalition that has been conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was also expected to leave port soon to go on station in the Persian Gulf.

Rhodes said that the U.S. agreed with France that the attacks in in Paris, which killed at least 129 people, including an American exchange student, were an act of war.

He stopped short of saying that the U.S. would back France if President Francois Hollande sought to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, meaning that an attack on one NATO member should be considered an attack on all that required a response.

Rhodes also sought to clarify Obama's recent remarks on the "containment" of ISIS, which have drawn scorn from critics.

"Our goal has been first to contain" ISIS, Obama said last Thursday before the Paris attacks in an ABC-TV interview. Since the U.S. began airstrikes in August 2014, "you don't see this systematic march by ISIL (another acronym for ISIS) across terrain," Obama said.

Rhodes said that the initial focus of the U.S. effort against ISIS was "to stop the geographic advance. We have done that." The U.S. was also focused on stopping ISIS terror attacks in the West, he said, but ISIS "still very much depends on safe havens in Iraq and Syria."

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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