WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Monday the planned deployment of dozens of U.S. special forces to Syria to advise opposition forces fighting Islamic State did not break his promise not to put “boots on the ground” in the Syrian conflict.
“Keep in mind that we have run special ops already and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do,” Obama said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News” in his first public comments on the deployment since it was announced on Friday.
“We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL,” Obama said, using another acronym for the Islamic State militant group. “I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn’t solve the problem.”
In announcing the measure, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to “train, advise and assist” and would number fewer than 50.
The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting the Syria mission to air strikes against Islamic State. Before last year, Obama, who has been averse to committing troops to Middle East wars, had ruled out an American presence on the ground in Syria.
In a nationally televised address in September 2013, Obama said: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”
Over the past year, however, he has emphasized that he would not send U.S. “combat” troops there.
The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up the U.S. effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military programme to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.
Russia and Iran have increased their military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against rebels in the 4-1/2-year-old civil war.
Reporting by Peter Cooney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman