President Obama has authorized the deployment of less than 50 U.S. special operations forces to fight the Islamic State in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria, the White House said Friday.
The president also has ordered more U.S. warplanes to an air base in Turkey as part of the “intensifying” campaign to counter the extremist group also known as ISIL, a senior administration official said.
The announcement was followed Friday evening by Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s assertion that the U.S., Russia and Iran “agree to disagree” on the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Mr. Kerry, who spoke with reporters after an intense round of Syria peace talks that for the first time included a delegation from Iran, said the administration remains steadfast in its belief that “there is no way that President Assad can unite and govern Syria” — despite Iranian and Russian claims to the contrary.
“But we can’t allow that difference to get in the way of the possibility of diplomacy to end the killing,” Mr. Kerry said with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura standing beside him as the round of talks came to a close in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
“The decision that was really made here today was that even though we acknowledge the difference, we know it is urgent to get to the table and to begin the process of real negotiations,” Mr. Kerry said.
For his own part, Mr. Lavrov said there was “no agreement on the destiny of Assad.” But the Russian diplomat appeared to leave open the possibility that Moscow, which has ramped up its military support for the Syrian president in the face of U.S. calls for his ouster, may be open to a compromise.
“Russia believes that it is up to Syrian people to decide within the framework of the political process,” Mr. Lavrov said. “It is said in the joint statement that the political process should be done by the Syrian people and belong to the Syrian people, and the Syrian people should decide the future of their country.”
The back and forth came hours after the White House announcement on the deployment of a small contingency of U.S. special operations forces to fight Islamic State extremists in northern Syria.
The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “We have been focused on intensifying elements of our strategy that have been working, while also moving away from elements of our approach that have proven less effective.”
Mr. Obama and his advisers have come under increasing criticism in Congress over the failure of a $500 million “train and equip” plan to recruit a moderate Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State.
New Speaker Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said the commitment of troops “must come with a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL.”
“Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region,” Mr. Ryan said.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, criticized the president’s move.
“Putting small numbers of troops in Syria is yet another tactical move in the absence of a comprehensive strategy for Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East that does nothing more than create the appearance of serious action,” Mr. McCarthy said in a statement.
While the U.S. has been leading a coalition carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State, Mr. Obama has said repeatedly he won’t send combat troops into Syria.
Reporters pressed White House press secretary Josh Earnest repeatedly Friday to acknowledge that the new deployment is a combat mission, but Mr. Earnest refused to characterize the new forces as combat troops.
“To say that would only confuse the situation,” Mr. Earnest said. He said Mr. Obama wasn’t breaking his promise in September 2014 not to send combat forces into Iraq and Syria.
“The president did go to great lengths to make clear that our counter-ISIL strategy in Iraq and Syria would be substantially different … [from] the strategy of a long-term, large-scale, ground combat operation that the Bush administration pursued back in 2003,” he said. “The president did go out of his way to make it quite clear that our strategy is quite different. That difference existed then, and that difference exists today.”
Asked why Mr. Obama didn’t make the announcement himself, his spokesman said it was because “our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed.”
The senior official said the U.S. has “made good progress in both Iraq and Syria when we have worked closely with effective partners on the ground who have proven capable of reclaiming territory from ISIL and going on offense.”
“Specifically, we have enhanced our ability to partner with these forces — advising them and helping to facilitate their activities; providing air support for their ground offensives; and directly equipping them so that they are more effective,” he said.
The president also authorized the deployment of more A-10 and F-15 warplanes to Incirlik airbase in Turkey, additional consultation with the Iraqi government on establishing a special operations task force to fight the Islamic State, and enhancing U.S. military aid to Jordan and Lebanon.
Mr. Obama called Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Friday and pledged to “intensify support” for the Iraqi military’s fight against the Islamic State in Ramadi and elsewhere, Mr. Earnest said.
Mr. Earnest didn’t rule out deploying other U.S. special forces to Iraq in a “train and advise” role in Iraq.
The senior administration official said the U.S. core objective of degrading and destroying the Islamic State “has not changed.”
“We have always been clear that this would be a multi-year campaign, and that continues to be the case,” he said. “ISIL is a determined enemy.”
The campaign to counter the Islamic State comes as the administration has become increasingly open to working with both Russia and Iran toward finding a political solution to Syria’s four-year-old, multi-front civil war, in which more than 250,000 people have been killed and millions have become refugees.
Russia’s military began fighting last month in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who the U.S. wants removed from power.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said the troop deployment is another indication that Congress should hold a vote on authorizing military force against ISIL.
“We have seen the United States increase troop deployment levels to more than 3,500 servicemembers and undertake approximately 7,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria at a cost of over $4.75 billion or $11 million a day,” Mr. Kaine said. “As this war intensifies and broadens, Congress has sat on its hands and failed to perform one of its most fundamental constitutional duties.”
Mr. Kaine said the president also should “propose a unified strategy that addresses the intertwined challenges posed by ISIL and President Assad.” He called attention to “the incongruity [of] pursuing political discussions while at the same time ramping up our U.S. military presence in Syria to address half the problem — ISIL, but not Assad.”
The Peace Action organization called the president’s move “disappointing.”
“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. “Adding U.S. ground troops is just throwing gasoline on the fire. Instead, we need sustained diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war and we need to significantly increase humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday that no country could use military force in Syria without first securing the agreement of the Syrian government, the TASS news agency reported.
TASS said Mr. Ryabkov was responding to a question about the prospect of the U.S. launching a ground operation in Syria.
“The question of using military force in any form without the agreement of Damascus is for us unacceptable,” it quoted him as saying.
The U.S. also has about 3,500 troops in Iraq as military advisers in the fight against the Islamic State. One soldier was killed in Iraq last week during a mission to rescue hostages from the extremist group.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article, based in part on wire-service reports.