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U.S. President sends ground troops to Syria to build on gains over Islamic State.

President Barack
Obama announced on Monday the biggest expansion of U.S. ground troops in
Syria since the civil war there began, saying he would dispatch 250
special forces soldiers to help local militia to build on successes
against Islamic State.

The
new deployment increases U.S. forces in Syria six-fold to about 300.
While the total U.S. ground force is still small by comparison to other
American deployments, defense experts said it could help shift the
momentum in Syria by giving more Syrian fighters on the ground access
to U.S. close air support.

Announcing
the decision in Germany at the end of a six-day foreign tour, Obama
said the move followed on victories over Islamic State that clawed back
territory from the hard-line Sunni Islamist group.

“Given
the success, I’ve approved the deployment of up to 250 additional U.S.
personnel in Syria, including special forces to keep up this momentum,”
Obama said in a speech at a trade fair in the northern city of Hanover,
the last stop on a trip that has taken him to Saudi Arabia and Britain.

“They’re
not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be
essential in providing the training and assisting local forces as they
continue to drive ISIL back,” he added, using an acronym for Islamic
State, also known as ISIS.

The U.S.
military has led an air campaign against Islamic State since 2014 in
both Iraq and Syria, but the campaign’s effectiveness in Syria has been
limited by a lack of allies on the ground in a country where a complex,
multi-sided civil war has raged for five years.

Russia
launched its own air campaign in Syria last year, which has been more
effective because it is closely coordinated with the government of
President Bashar al-Assad, who is Moscow’s ally but a foe of the United
States.

CLOSE AIR SUPPORT
Washington’s
main allies on the ground have been a Kurdish force known as the YPG,
who wrested control of much of the Turkish-Syrian border from Islamic
State. The alliance is complex because U.S. ally Turkey is deeply
hostile to the YPG.

“Presumably
these are going to assist our Kurdish YPG friends to widen and deepen
their offensive against IS in northeastern Syria,” Tim Ripley, defense
analyst and writer for IHS Janes Defence Weekly magazine, said.

“You
can provide more advisers to more units, to allow more units to receive
close air support,” Ripley said, of the new U.S. deployment. “The more
people you have, the more militia groups can have close air support that
makes them more effective so they can advance in more areas.”

The Syria Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed
coalition set up in October to unite the Kurdish YPG and some Arab
allies, said it welcomed Obama’s announcement but still wanted more
help.
“Any support they offer is
positive but we hope there will be greater support,” SDF spokesman Talal
Silo said. “So far we have been supplied only with ammunition, and we
were hoping to be supplied with military hardware …”

Ripley
said Washington would still have to take a political decision to help
the Kurds despite Turkish objections. Kurdish advances have largely
stopped since February, with Turkey strongly objecting to the Kurds
taking more territory.

“The real
question has to be: are they going to let the Kurdish YPG forces
actually go and attack and capture some territory? This is something the
Americans have not been happy about because when the YPG forces attack
and capture territory, it tends to anger the president of Turkey,”
Ripley said.
If the Kurds are given
the green light to advance with American air support, the main
short-term objective could be sealing off the last stretch of the border
that is not held by the Kurds or the government, west of the Euphrates
river.

That would deny Islamic
State access to the outside world, but would infuriate Turkey which
regards the border as the main access route for other Sunni Muslim rebel
groups it supports against Assad, and for aid to civilians in rebel
areas.

U.S.
special forces teams providing close air support could ultimately help
the Kurds advance on Raqqa, Islamic State’s main Syrian stronghold and
de facto capital.

“This places them
in another quandary. Do they coordinate their attack on Raqqa with the
Syrian army and the Russian air force, who are … advancing on Raqqa?
… The question is who’s going to get there first,” Ripley said.

With
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sitting in the audience, Obama also
urged Europe and NATO allies to do more in the fight against Islamic
State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

The
group controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and a
swathe of territory in between, and has proven a potent threat abroad,
claiming responsibility for major attacks in Paris in November and
Brussels in March.

“Even as
European countries make important contributions against ISIL, Europe,
including NATO, can still do more,” Obama said ahead of talks later in
the day with Merkel and the leaders of Britain, France and Italy.

European countries have mostly contributed
only small numbers of aircraft to the U.S.-led mission targeting Islamic
State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Obama
pledged to wind down wars in the Middle East when he was first elected
in 2008. But in the latter part of his presidency he has found it
necessary to keep troops in Afghanistan, return them to Iraq and send
them to Syria, where the five-year civil war has killed at least 250,000
people.

Deputy National Security
Adviser Ben Rhodes, briefing reporters before Obama spoke, said U.S.
forces “are not being sent there on a combat mission”.

In
Iraq, Islamic State has been forced back since December when it lost
Ramadi, capital of the western province of Anbar. In Syria, jihadist
fighters have been pushed from the strategic city of Palmyra by
Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

TALKS IN MELTDOWN, TRUCE IN TATTERS

But
Washington’s lack of allies on the ground has meant its role in Syria
has been circumscribed. The sudden entry of Moscow into the conflict
last year has tipped the balance of power in favor of Assad, against a
range of rebel groups supported by Turkey, other Arab states and the
West.

Washington and Moscow
sponsored a ceasefire between most of the main warring parties since
February, which allowed the first peace talks involving Assad’s
government and many of his foes to begin last month. However, those
talks appear close to collapse, with the main opposition delegation
having suspended its participation last week, and the ceasefire is
largely in tatters. Islamic State is excluded from the ceasefire.

Fighting
has increased in recent days near Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city,
now split between rebel and government zones. A monitoring group said 60
people had been killed there in three days of intense fighting,
including civilians killed by rebel shelling and government air strikes.

The Syrian government’s
negotiator at the Geneva talks said a bomb hit a hospital near a Shi’ite
shrine near Damascus, killing many innocent people and proving the
government’s enemies were terrorists.

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