U.S. weighs special forces in Syria, helicopters in Iraq
President Barack Obama, deeply averse to over-committing American troops to unpopular wars in the Middle East, could view some of the options as more viable than others as he approaches the final stretch of his presidency.
Still, Obama’s administration is under pressure to ramp up America’s effort, particularly after the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to Islamic State in May and the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.
Two U.S. officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations, said any deployments would be narrowly tailored, seeking to advance specific, limited military objectives in both Iraq and Syria.
That option includes temporarily deploying some U.S. special operations forces inside of Syria to advise moderate Syrian opposition fighters for the first time and, potentially, to help call in U.S. air strikes, one official said.
Other possibilities including sending a small number of Apache attack helicopters, and U.S. forces to operate them, to Iraq, as well as taking steps to bolster other Iraqi capabilities needed to claw back territory from Islamic State.
The deliberations come as the United States looks to Syrian opposition fighters it supports to put pressure on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold, and for Iraqi forces to retake Ramadi after the city fell to the militants earlier this year.
The options appeared to stop short of deploying American troops in any direct ground combat roles, something Obama has so far ruled out.
One of the officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the proposals were still in a conceptual stage – meaning that even if any were approved in the coming days, a U.S. military deployment could still be weeks or months away.
The Pentagon and White House declined comment on the options, which were also reported by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Earlier on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter signaled his intent to step up the U.S. military’s activity in Iraq and Syria, just days after U.S. forces participated in a raid to rescue Islamic State hostages in Iraq.
One U.S. soldier was killed in that mission.
“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter told a Senate hearing, using an acronym for the militant group.
Marine Corp General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate hearing he would consider recommending putting more U.S. forces with Iraqi troops to support the Islamic State fight if it improved chances of defeating the militants.
“If it had operational or strategic impact and we could reinforce success, that would be the basic framework within which I’d make a recommendation for additional forces to be co-located with Iraqi units,” Dunford said, without elaborating.