President Obama said Monday that the U.S. special forces he is sending to fight the Islamic State in Syria won’t be engaged in firefights “on the front lines.”
“Really this is just an extension of what we’re continuing to do,” Mr. Obama said on NBC’s Nightly News. “We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with” the Islamic State.
Asked by anchor Lester Holt whether he had broken a promise not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria, Mr. Obama replied, “We have run special ops already. I’ve been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq [in 2003] with battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.”
Mr. Obama on Friday ordered up to 50 special forces to work with Kurdish troops in northern Syria against the Islamic State. He also ordered more U.S. warplanes to an air base in Turkey as part of the “intensifying” campaign to counter the terrorist group, also known as ISIL and ISIS.
His comments Monday on NBC were his first public remarks about his actions.
The move comes after the administration has abandoned a plan to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria to fight the Islamic State.
Several Republican presidential candidates have criticized Mr. Obama’s move, calling it a half-measure that will be ineffective.
“We have a president who just doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Donald Trump told CNN on Saturday. “You either do it or you don’t do it.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said that while Mr. Obama’s action is “a move in the right direction,” he told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that “we need to have a much bigger plan when it comes to battling the global jihadist because they have big ideals.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was characteristically more blunt. “You know, 50? Why bother? Why bother?” he said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
And from the left, peace activists said this deployment will beget further ones, as happened in Vietnam. “With the ‘no boots on the ground’ promise broken there’s no telling how many U.S. troops will ultimately be sent to Iraq and Syria,” said Peace Action spokesman Jon Rainwater.
Mr. Obama’s remarks Monday dovetail with the White House’s insistence over the weekend that these deployments are not a combat mission, despite the Syrian civil war being a fluid situation without fixed front lines and the frequent use of terrorist and commando-style missions.
“To say that would only confuse the situation,” press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday despite repeated questioning from reporters on whether these special forces troops were a combat force.
Mr. Obama won election in 2008 on a platform of, among other things, withdrawing U.S. combat forces from the Middle East and he frequently touts in speeches that he ended the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He also, when he started launching air and drone strikes in September 2014 against the Islamic State, promised not to send combat forces into Iraq and Syria.