President Barack Obama announced on Monday the biggest expansion of U.S. ground troops in Syria since its civil war began, but the move was unlikely to mollify Arab allies angry over Washington’s cautious approach to the conflict.
The deployment of up to 250 Special Forces soldiers increases U.S. forces in Syria roughly sixfold and is aimed at helping militia fighters who have clawed back territory from Islamic State militants in a string of victories.
Defense experts said giving more fighters on the ground access to U.S. close air support could shift the momentum in Syria. But a senior member of the Saudi royal family who asked not to be identified dismissed the decision as “window dressing.”
In announcing the deployment, Obama emphasized the importance of sustaining the gains made in the fight against Islamic State, although he cautioned that the U.S. forces would not be spearheading the battle.
“They’re not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they continue to drive ISIL back,” he said in a speech in the German city of Hanover, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Obama was speaking on the last stop of a foreign tour that also took him to Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and her rival, Bernie Sanders, voiced support on Monday for the deployment.
“These Special Forces will continue to provide critical support to local forces on the ground who ultimately must be the ones to win this fight,” Clinton’s campaign said in a statement. The former secretary of state previously called for a tougher approach to fighting Islamic State militants, including more air strikes and Special Forces.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, said during an MSNBC town hall: “I think what the president is talking about is having American troops training Muslim troops, helping to supply the military equipment they need, and I do support that effort.”
The U.S. military has led an air campaign against Islamic State since 2014 in Iraq and Syria, but its effectiveness in Syria has been limited by a lack of allies on the ground in a country where a multi-sided civil war has raged for five years.
A Russian air campaign launched in Syria last year has been more effective because it is closely coordinated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who is Moscow’s ally but a foe of the United States.
Rising tensions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies, which have privately criticized the Obama administration’s security policy toward the region, also have complicated the U.S. effort in Syria.
U.S. Republican Senator John McCain called the move overdue but insufficient. “Another reluctant step down the dangerous road of gradual escalation will not undo the damage in Syria to which this administration has borne passive witness,” said McCain, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump did not mention the deployment during a campaign rally in Rhode Island. He plans to address foreign policy in a speech on Wednesday in Washington. (Courtesy Reuters)