The United States has disclosed plans to station the first American boots on the ground in Syria in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, saying dozens of special forces troops would be sent as advisers to groups fighting against the armed group.
Washington announced the small ground force shortly before 17 countries, the European Union and the United Nations called for a nationwide truce in Syria’s civil war during talks in Vienna, attended for the first time since the conflict began in 2011 by President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Iran.
US officials said the small special forces contingent in Syria would work with local “moderate” rebel groups to fight against ISIL, and that it should not be considered a combat mission.
“The president has been quite clear that there is no military solution to the problems that are plaguing Iraq and Syria. There is a diplomatic one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Washington.
He said the special forces’ mission would be to “train, advise and assist” local groups.
Making it clear they would number fewer than 50, he added: “I think if we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground.”
Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan, reporting from Washington, said the announcement marks a shift in policy by President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The administration had said it was not going to put any troops on the ground in Syria to fight against ISIL,” she said.
“Even though the military is stressing that these operatives are not going to be deployed alongside the Syrian opposition groups, there is a risk because they are physically in the country.”
Jordan said the US was hoping that the deployment of special forces would help to put pressure on all parties to find a political resolution to the devastating Syrian war, which is now in its fifth year.
Washington has targeted ISIL with air strikes for over a year since fighters seized swaths of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and proclaimed a caliphate to rule all Muslims.
But although it has acknowledged conducting special forces raids into Syria in the past, Washington has not stationed troops there.
The decision is part of a package of other steps to beef up the fight against ISIL, including sending more warplanes to the region and discussing with Iraq the establishment of a special forces task force there.
For Syria, it is part of what US officials call a two-pronged strategy of increasing aid to groups they describe as “moderate rebels” fighting against ISIL, while also working on diplomacy to remove Assad from power.