US to send special forces to help Syrian rebels against IS

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Nov 01, 2015 00:38 IST
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and US secretary of state John Kerry hold a news conference at the Grand Hotel in Vienna. (REUTERS)

In a major escalation of its engagement in Syria, the United States on Friday announced it will send Special Operations Forces there to help rebels fighting the Islamic State (IS).

Around the same time, foreign ministers of 20 countries meeting in Vienna asked the UN to explore a political solution in Syria through talks, followed by a new constitution and elections.

This is much in line with India’s position on dealing with the crisis in Syria — that it needs to be solved politically, with cessation of violence by both sides.

The foreign ministers asked the UN in a communique to call a meeting of the Syrian government and opposition to find a solution that leads to “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections”.

In the same communique, the foreign ministers resolved to ensure the defeat of Da’esh, another name for IS, and other terrorist groups designed by the UN.

The escalation of US engagement towards that end announced Friday may be small — “less than 50” Special Operations Forces personnel — but the decision marks a complete reversal of President Barack Obama’s earlier assertions that he will never send ground forces into Syria.

But his spokesman Josh Earnest denied it was a change of policy, and described it as an “intensification” of an existing strategy to support local forces to take on the IS themselves.

To that end, he added, “the President did make a decision to intensify that support by offering a small number of US Special Operations military personnel to offer them advice and assistance on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL”.

About further deployments, increasing the force level to over 50, Earnest said, “I don’t want to try to predict the future here.” He didn’t rule it out, however.

Asked the same question, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said “we are going to continue to innovate, to build on what works” while sticking with the fundamental strategy of assisting local forces and not substituting them.

The role of these forces will not, however, be always confined to advising local forces as was discovered recently when a US special forces operative died in a raid on an IS facility in Iraq. Alluding to it, Carter conceded these personnel will be put “in harm’s way …No question about it”.

The US has struggled to deal with Syria, and Obama has been accused of handling it sloppily — fixing red-lines but ignoring their violations, for one — and then watch Russia move in.

Obama ordered airstrikes against IS targets in Syria last September, with coalition partners, after months of hesitation that was widely construed as indecision and weakness.

Assad seemed off the hook. And Russia, his strongest ally, moved in with warplanes and logistics in his support, but ostensibly to fight the IS.

There appears to be some convergence now over Assad’s future among his allies Russia and Iran on the one hand and the US-led coalition of West Asian countries on the other. Both sides agree he must go, but in a few months, after facilitating a smooth transfer of power.

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