President Barack Obama has authorized the first sustained deployment of special forces to Syria, the White House said Friday, relenting on a long-standing refusal to put American boots on the ground.
Obama okayed a deployment of "fewer than 50" special operations forces in the north of the war-ravaged nation in a bid to strengthen forces fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) group, spokesman Josh Earnest said, according to AFP.
The White House denied the move was a reversal of Obama's pledge not to put combat troops in Syria, saying Americans would not be "leading the charge up the hill" and insisting it was not evidence of "mission creep."
"Our strategy in Syria hasn't changed," Earnest stressed.
Instead, officials indicated the mission would echo some U.S. operations in Iraq, where military personnel coordinate local ground forces, channel weapons supplies and direct air support.
But even in Iraq, the line between combat and non-combat troops has been hazy.
American forces took part in a recent raid on a jihadist-run prison in northern Iraq, resulting in the first death of a U.S. serviceman in action in Iraq since 2011.
For over a year, the United States has led a 65-member coalition that has conducted air strikes against more than 13,000 ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.
But In Syria, efforts to battle jihadists have been plagued by the complexities of a civil war that has killed more than 240,000 people since March 2011 and prompted the most serious refugee crisis since World War II.
Amid Obama's reluctance to become enmeshed in another Middle East war, the American-backed opposition — a uneasy mix of Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Arabs — has been reluctant to fight Islamic State jihadists rather than President Bashar Al-Assad.
Meanwhile they have come under attack from Assad's forces, ISIS fighters, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, groups linked to Al-Qaeda, and, more recently, Russian air strikes.
Obama recently scrapped a $600 million mission to train Syrian opposition fighters.
The White House announced Friday the deployment of A-10 ground-attack planes and F-15 tactical fighter jets to the Incirlik base in southern Turkey and increased assistance to Lebanon and Jordan as part of the ramped up effort.
AFP contributed to this report.
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