U.S. recognizes dangers in Syria ground operation
But the Pentagon chief does not rule out possibility of further special forces deployments to Syria if the initial move is successful
The decision to send U.S. special forces to Syria is part of a strategy to enable local forces to defeat ISIS but it will put U.S. forces in harm's way, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday.
"Our role fundamentally and the strategy is to enable local forces but does that put U.S. forces in harm's way? It does, no question about it," Carter said, while on travel to Fairbanks, Alaska.
This month a U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq participating in a Kurdish-led mission to rescue ISIS hostages.
Carter did not rule out the possibility of further special forces deployments to Syria if the initial deployment is successful.
"We are going to continue to innovate, to build on what works," Carter said. "As we think of new ways and ... develop new opportunities to support capable and motivating forces we will consider those, we will make recommendations to the president."
President Barack Obama has authorized the first sustained deployment of special forces to Syria, the White House said Friday, relenting on a long-standing refusal to put U.S. boots on the ground.
Obama okayed a deployment of "fewer than 50" special operations forces in the north of the war-ravaged nation in a bid to strengthen forces fighting ISIS, spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The White House denied the move was a reversal of Obama's pledge not to put combat troops in Syria, saying Americans would not be "leading the charge up the hill" and insisting it was not evidence of "mission creep."
"Our strategy in Syria hasn't changed," said Earnest.
Instead, officials indicated the mission would echo some U.S. operations in Iraq, where military personnel coordinate local ground forces, channel weapons supplies and direct air support.
But even in Iraq, the line between combat and non-combat troops has been hazy.
U.S. forces took part in a recent raid on a jihadist-run prison in northern Iraq, resulting in the first death of a U.S. serviceman in action in Iraq since 2011.
For over a year, the U.S. has led a 65-member coalition that has conducted air strikes against more than 13,000 Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
But In Syria, efforts to battle jihadists have been plagued by the complexities of a civil war that has killed more than 240,000 people since March 2011 and prompted the most serious refugee crisis since World War II.