WASHINGTON (Web Desk) – US officials disclosed plans on Friday to station the first American boots on the ground in Syria in the war against Islamic State fighters, saying dozens of Special Forces troops would be sent as advisers to groups fighting against the jihadists.
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The announcement of the small ground force came as diplomats from more than a dozen countries held talks over Syria, which for the first time in the 4-year civil war were attended by President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Iran.
In a rare hint of diplomatic progress, Tehran signalled it would back a six-month political “transition” period in Syria followed by elections to decide Assad’s fate, although his foes rejected the proposal as a trick to keep the president in power.
U.S. 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. Washington has targeted the group with air strikes for more than a year since fighters seized swathes of eastern Syria and northern Iraq and proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims.
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 the jihadists.
A senior U.S. administration official said President Barack Obama had authorised sending fewer than 50 U.S. Special Forces troops to northern Syria to work with local groups. Washington has acknowledged conducting Special Forces raids into Syria in the past but has not stationed troops there.
Its main friends in northern Syria are Kurdish forces, who captured a swathe of territory from Islamic State along the border with Turkey over the past year with the aid of U.S. air strikes. Washington has been cautious about publicly committing to helping the Syrian Kurds, who are mistrusted by U.S. ally Turkey.
The measure would be 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.
For Syria, it is part of what U.S. officials call a two-pronged strategy of increasing aid to groups they describe as “moderate rebels” fighting against Islamic State, while also working on diplomacy to remove Assad from power.