President Barack Obama today said the US would send up to 250 more special forces and other military personnel to Syria to help rebels fight Islamic State group jihadists.
Obama was in Germany for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and both later met the British, French and Italian leaders to discuss the battle against IS in its self-declared “caliphate” across northern Syria and Iraq.
In a speech in the German city of Hanover, Obama hailed NATO partners’ progress so far in pushing back IS, which he called “the most urgent threat to our nations”.
“A small number of American special operations forces are already on the ground in Syria and their expertise has been critical as local forces have driven ISIL out of key areas,” he said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.
“So, given the success, I have approved the deployment of up to 250 additional US personnel in Syria, including special forces, to keep up this momentum.”
The US forces will not lead the fight on the ground but provide training and advice to local forces against IS.
“These terrorists will learn the same lessons that others before them have, which is: your hatred is no match for our nations, united in defence of our way of life,” said Obama.
Syrian opposition group the High Negotiations Committee said boosting the US military presence to about 300 would be “a good step” and help “rid our country of this scourge”.
“But Syria will not be free of terrorism until we see the end of the Assad regime’s reign of terror,” added HNC spokesman Salem Al Meslet.
While most world powers agree that IS—which has boasted of beheadings and other battlefield atrocities as well as terror attacks in Paris and Brussels—must be defeated, they have backed different sides in Syria’s complex civil war.
Western powers have offered some support to moderate rebels, while Russia has sent troops and fighter jets to back the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Aiming to end the bloodshed, all sides eight weeks ago agreed a ceasefire, but it has been frayed by escalating violence around Aleppo, with dozens killed by government air strikes and rebel rockets.
Obama yesterday pressed for all parties to return to the negotiating table and “reinstate” the internationally-brokered ceasefire—the clearest indication yet that the White House believes the truce has all but disintegrated.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, put some blame for the lack of progress on the US side.
“We came to an agreement with the Americans for them to use their influence on these ‘good opposition’ groups and to get them to leave, so that no one would hinder the destruction of terrorist groups,” Lavrov said.
“But despite these promises made by the US, nothing has been done in the two months since.”
A Western diplomat in Geneva told AFP that the truce deal “is in poor shape, the result very largely of Assad regime attacks on Syria civilians, towns and marketplaces, as well as on the moderate armed opposition”.
But the diplomat said all parties to the International Syria Support Group which agreed the truce are committed to maintaining it, “and no member believes the cessation (of violence) to be over”.
Ground troops ‘a mistake’ - Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with widespread anti-Assad protests, has since spiralled into a multi-front war that has killed 270,000 people.
Obama has come under criticism for his handling of Syria’s war, with opponents saying he could have done more to stem the bloodshed.
But the US president—who came to power vowing to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan—has stood firm in his opposition to plunging the United States into another ground war in the Islamic world.
In an interview with the BBC, Obama said that “it would be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, or a combination of Western states to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime.”
Pressure on Obama to end the bloodshed is increasing in the United States, which in is the throes of a fiercely fought presidential election race, and from European allies who want to halt the massive influx of refugees.
Many of his critics have called for a safe zone to be established, but Obama has rejected the idea.
“As a practical matter, sadly, it is very difficult to see how it would operate short of us essentially being willing to militarily take over a big chunk of that country,” Obama said.