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The change will station U.S. special operations forces on the ground for the first time in Syria in its fight against the Islamic State after thousands of airstrikes in the past year produced mixed results, although their mission is expected to be primarily advisory.
The change "is consistent with strategy to intensify the battle against ISIS,” a White House senior official told ABC News.
The White House said Obama has authorized somewhere around 50 special operations forces to go into Syria to work with the rebel group known as the Syrian Arab Coalition. These forces will work along the Syrian border and not on the front lines with the rebel groups. They will provide training, assistance and advise just as U.S. troops are doing in Iraq.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama called Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss the intensified approach.
"I certainly wouldn't underestimate the capability and capacity of our U.S. special operations forces to be an important force multiplier anywhere around the world they're deployed, and the president does expect that they can have an impact in intensifying our strategy for building the capacity of local forces inside of Syria to taking the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country," Earnest said, using the government’s acronym for ISIS.
Some Republicans in Congress have already criticized the announcement, questioning whether the president is simply trying to "run out the clock" through the end of his presidency. Earnest admitted that the change should not be expected to be a game-changer in the fight against ISIS without a diplomatic resolution in Syria.
"The president has been quite clear that there is no military solution to the problems that are plaguing Iraq and Syria. There is a diplomatic one," he said. "The president has put in place a multifaceted strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL and this military component to that strategy is an important part of the president's top priority, which is the safety of the American public."
Earnest refused to answer whether the special operations advisers have already arrived in Syria, citing security concerns.
"There are boots on the ground now," Earnest said, referencing military assets in Iraq, a White House spokesman later clarified.
Nevertheless, Earnest emphasized that the advisers are "not being deployed to Syria with a combat mission," but will have the capacity to defend themselves if necessary.
"They're being deployed to Syria with a training, advising and assist mission, and that's not to downplay the serious risk that they're facing," he said. "It's just an effort to be as specific and as clear as possible about what exactly they're being asked to do."
"These forces are at risk in a very dangerous part of the world and in a dangerous country," he continued. "The president has also made clear that he wants to make sure that these special operators have the equipment that they need to defend themselves and that's what they have."
The Syrian Arab Coalition is an umbrella group of 5,000 fighters from 10 moderate rebel groups that have been fighting ISIS in northeastern Syria. Earlier this month the United States airdropped 50 tons of ammunition to this group in the first phase of the reorganized train-and-equip program that struggled to train moderate Syrian rebels.
The special operations advisers going to Syria will operate close to the Iraqi border and will not be in combat. They will work with the Syrian Arab Coalition to facilitate airstrikes, but they are not forward air controllers. They will be at the group’s headquarters speeding up coordination of potential airstrikes.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress earlier this week that U.S. Special Operations forces could engage in "direct action on the ground" in Iraq in the wake of the successful raid that freed 70 hostages held by ISIS. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed in that rescue as American special operations forces participated in a firefight to assist Kurdish forces taking heavy ISIS gunfire.
Another U.S. official told ABC News that Carter has proposed that American military advisers should be allowed to advise Iraqi forces trying to retake Ramadi from ISIS. Under the proposal U.S. military advisers would be allowed to advise and assist Iraqi forces at the brigade level which would have a greater impact on tactical decisions. Until now U.S. advisers are only allowed to work with military commanders at the much higher division and corps level.
The official said there is also the possibility that Apache attack helicopters already in the Baghdad area for force protection could be re-tasked to assist with the Iraqi military's fight to retake Ramadi. Iraqi forces have struggled for months in retaking the city as they face tougher than expected ISIS defenses surrounding the city.
A decision has also been made to send F-15 fighters to Incirlik, Turkey to complement a dozen A-10 aircraft that recently rotated into the base. The presence of both aircraft will ramp up the number of airstrikes in Syria.
*This story has been updated to include the White House's clarification that U.S. military assets are already on the ground in Iraq, not Syria.