White House: US troops in Syria not on 'combat mission'

White House: US troops in Syria not on 'combat mission'
© Getty Images
The White House on Friday insisted that U.S. special operations forces deployed to Syria will not serve in a combat role, pushing back against the idea the administration is shifting its core strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 
 
“These forces do not have a combat mission,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. 
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Earnest described the decision to send fewer than 50 U.S. troops to Syria as “an intensification of a strategy the president announced more than a year ago” to train, advise and assist local forces fighting ISIS militants. 
 
“The fact is, our strategy inside of Syria hasn’t changed,” he said. 
 
"It will not be their primary responsibility to lead the charge up the hill," he added of the special operations troops.
 
Earnest did not rule out sending more troops to Syria if they succeed in helping erase gains made by ISIS. 
 
"I certainly wouldn’t rule out something like that,” he said. 
 
The move would put U.S. ground troops in Syria for the first time since that country’s civil war began. It appears to contradict Obama’s 2013 pledge not to put “boots on the ground” there.
 
“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria," the president said at the time. "I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."
 
But Earnest insisted Obama’s words have been taken “out of context.” 
 
He contrasted the president’s move to send troops to Syria with President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the Iraq War in 2003, which he described as a “long-term” combat mission.
 
Earnest said Obama's intention was to not put U.S. forces on the ground to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. 
 
“[Obama] does not believe that the military operation in Iraq was in our best interest [or] is something we should do again,” Earnest said. “That is why our special operations personnel inside of Syria have a very different mission.”
 
The White House informed congressional leaders of Obama's decision before it was announced, Earnest said.
 
Last week, U.S. special operations forces participated in a raid in Iraq with Kurdish Peshmerga forces to rescue Iraqi hostages. An Army Delta Force commando was killed in the mission. 
 
That raised concerns U.S. forces in Syria could too find themselves in combat situations despite the White House’s claims they do not have a “combat mission.”
 
“There is no denying the amount of risk they are taking on here and they will be equipped to defend themselves,” Earnest said.