The United States disclosed plans on Friday to station its first ground troops in Syria for the war against Islamic State, saying dozens of US soldiers would be sent as advisers to groups fighting the militants.
Washington announced the small special operations force shortly before 17 countries, the European Union and the United Nations called for a nationwide truce in Syria's civil war at talks in Vienna, attended for the first time since the conflict began in 2011 by President Bashar al-Assad's ally Iran.
The United States said it would deploy fewer than 50 troops to northern Syria beginning in the coming weeks in an open-ended mission. Officials said the forces were not meant for front-line combat.
In Washington, US officials said the small Special Forces contingent in Syria would work with local “moderate rebel” groups to fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or 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.
Earnest said the Special Forces' mission would be to “train, advise and assist” local groups, adding: “I think if we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground.” Islamic State has seized swathes of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and proclaimed a caliphate to rule all Muslims.
The United States has conducted a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria since September 2014. But the deployment of even a small number of ground troops marks a significant change in Syria policy for President Barack Obama, who has been averse to committing troops to Middle East wars.
The United States has acknowledged conducting Special Forces raids into Syria in the past including one by Delta Force commandos in May that killed a senior Islamic State leader, but it has not stationed troops there.
The decision is part of a package of other steps to beef up the fight against Islamic State, including sending more warplanes to the region and discussing with Iraq the establishment of a Special Forces task force there.
In Vienna, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the timing of the announcement, as talks were held in the Austrian capital, was a coincidence and that peace moves must continue.
Russia's decision a month ago to join the conflict in Syria by bombing Assad's enemies has upended the strategy of the United States and its allies, who say Assad must go, as his presence makes it harder to fight Islamic State.
U.S. military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have cost up to $930 million as of September 24, according to a report released earlier this week, as the Pentagon broadens its air campaign against extremist Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. military is spending up to $10 million a day on operations against the Islamic State, Ex Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in September.
The CSBA estimates that if military operations intensify further and the U.S. deploys troops to the region, costs could expand to as high as $13 billion to $22 billion per year.