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White House official won't rule out raids with Syrian partners

White House official won't rule out raids with Syrian partners
© Getty Images

A senior White House official on Monday left the door open for U.S. troops deploying to Syria to conduct raids. 

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said at the Defense One Summit 2015 that raids would not be the troops' "principle" function.

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"The norm is not going out in raids," he said, but added, "I'm obviously not going to rule anything out." 

Rhodes repeated several times that the U.S. troops deploying to Syria will not have a combat "mission." 

"Their mission is not one of combat where they're going into the fight," he said. "What they're sent to do is not to go out and be engaged in combat. ... Their mission is not one of combat."  

The White House announced on Friday that several-dozen U.S. troops would be deployed to Syria to coordinate with local Syrian groups opposed to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as part of an effort to ramp up its military campaign. 

A senior defense official on Friday said the deploying troops would not be participating in any raids, but instead would stay at the groups' "quasi-headquarters." 

The official said although U.S. troops would continue to conduct unilateral raids in Syria, they would be carried out by other U.S. forces.

The official, however, did not rule out more troop deployments and raids with partners in the future, but said for now "they will not be accompanying on any operations that these [Syrian] forces partake in." 

Having U.S. troops on Syrian soil conducting combat raids would go against the president's pledge in 2013. 

"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," President Obama said on Sept. 10, 2013. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."  

Rhodes said the deployment is designed to strengthen local partners on the ground, and provide them with advice. Last month, the White House announced it was scrapping a Pentagon program to train Syrian rebels, and instead equip local forces to fight ISIS. 

However, Rhodes acknowledged U.S. troops could find themselves in combat, as with a raid conducted last month to assist Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq where one U.S. commando died. 

"These are dangerous places," he said.  

The U.S. troop deployment follows a Russian airstrike campaign in Syria that began in late September. Moscow has been helping the President Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria regain territory from opposition groups — in some cases, the same ones the U.S. has supported. 

The U.S. had warned Russia not to get militarily involved in Syria and, after Moscow began its campaign, warned that Russia would be bogged down in a quagmire and worsen the ongoing four-year civil war.  

Rhodes said Russia has been "reluctant" to move into eastern Syria, where the U.S. is conducting strikes, and doubts that it would move into Iraq also. 

He also pushed back against the idea that Russia is "boxing out" the U.S. in Syria by taking a more active military role there. 

"Russia has purchased itself isolation," he said. 

Rhodes also argued that the U.S. could take ownership of crises in the Middle East, as well as in places like Yemen, but said, "The question is, is that smart strategy?"

Asked which part of the White House's Middle East strategy the president was happy with, Rhodes replied, "One thing is that we don't have 150,000 troops there."