US to send special forces to help Syrian rebels against IS

In an escalation of its engagement in Syria, the United States has announced it will send several dozen Special Operations troops to the country to help rebels fighting the Islamic State (IS).

Around the same time on Friday, 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 escalation of US engagement may be small – “less than 50” Special Operations personnel – but the decision marks a reversal of President Barack Obama’s earlier assertions that he would never send ground forces into Syria.

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

To that end, he said, “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.”

The first open-ended mission by US troops in Syria will put the forces in harm’s way, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged. “Our role fundamentally and the strategy is to enable local forces but does that put US forces in harm’s way? It does, no question about it,” Carter told the media in Alaska.

This month, a US soldier was killed in Iraq participating in a Kurdish-led mission to rescue IS hostages.

Carter did not rule out the possibility of further Special Forces deployments to Syria. “We are going to continue to innovate, to build on what works,” he said.

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

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

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 watching 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.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad seemed off the hook. And Russia, its strongest ally, moved in with warplanes and logistics in his support, but ostensibly to fight the IS, a larger priority for the West.

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 Asia countries on the other. Both sides agree Assad must go, but in a few months, after facilitating a smooth transfer of power.