WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The United States will deploy dozens of special operations forces to northern Syria to advise opposition forces in their fight against Islamic State, a major policy shift for President Barack Obama and a step he has long resisted to avoid getting dragged into another war in the Middle East.
The planned deployment, along with the U.S. decision this week to include Iran in diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, represents the biggest shift in the United States' Syria policy since it began a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets there in September 2014.
Announcing the measure on Friday, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to "train, advise and assist" and would number fewer than 50. Spokesman Josh Earnest declined to give details about their exact role.
The decision by Obama, deeply averse to committing troops to unpopular wars in the Middle East, would mark the first sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria and raise the risk of American casualties, although U.S. officials stressed the forces were not meant to engage in front-line combat.
"This is a dangerous place on the globe and they are at risk, and there's no denying that," said Earnest, who repeatedly rejected the idea that the deployment would constitute a ground combat mission, which Obama has long rejected as a solution in Syria.
"I think if we were envisioning a combat operation, we probably would be contemplating more than 50 troops on the ground."
Earnest said the special operations mission in Syria was open ended and did not rule out the possibility of sending additional special forces troops into Iraq. Obama spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Friday about the fight against Islamic State, Earnest said.
The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up America's effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.
The planned deployment adds to an increasingly volatile conflict in Syria, where Russia and Iran have increased up their military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in the four-and-a-half year civil war.
Russia said when it began air strikes last month that it would also target the Islamic State militant group, but its planes have hit other rebel groups opposed to Assad, including groups backed by Washington.
The new U.S. strategy against Islamic State in Syria will be accompanied by a new special operations force in Erbil in northern Iraq, "intensified" cooperation with Iraqis in retaking Ramadi and expanded security assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, a senior congressional source said.
The forces in Syria would be stationed in rebel-held territory, coordinate air drops to rebels and resupplying those forces as they move toward Raqqa, which is in the north of the country and is the declared capital of Islamic State, U.S. officials told Reuters. They could also help coordinate air strikes from the ground, the officials said.
The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting the mission in Syria to a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State fighters.
'TOO LITTLE TOO LATE'
Some in Congress applauded the planned deployment, although longtime Republican critics of Obama's foreign policy described it as overdue and likely not enough to change the course of the war.
"Absent a larger coherent strategy, however, these steps may prove to be too little too late. I do not see a strategy for success, rather it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock," said Mac Thornberry, chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives.
Paul Ryan, the new House speaker, said the new U.S. commitment should come with a "coherent strategy" to defeat Islamic State.
The move reflects a wider strategy of strengthening rebels Washington sees as moderate even as it intensifies its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to end to the Syrian civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died.
To further counter Islamic State, Obama has also authorized deploying A-10s and F-15 aircraft to Incirlik air base in Turkey, a senior administration official said.
The news came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting at Syrian peace talks in Vienna.
The talks include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are adamantly opposed to his remaining in power after a civil war that has driven millions abroad as refugees and displaced millions more inside the country.
The United States is helping thousands of Syrian rebel fighters as they try to encircle Raqqa and cut that city off from Iraq’s Mosul, which the group also controls, U.S. officials say.
The most effective U.S. allies in northern Syria are Kurdish forces, who captured a swathe of territory from Islamic State along the border with Turkey over the past year with the aid of U.S. air strikes. But Washington has been cautious about publicly committing to helping the Syrian Kurds, who are mistrusted by U.S. ally Turkey.
Although the United States has dispatched special operations forces into Syria in the past, including an operation in May that killed an Islamic State leader, Obama’s decision paves the way for longer-term deployments of ground forces.
Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East studies at University of Oklahoma, said the U.S. moves were unlikely to fundamentally change the dynamics on the ground or to significantly accelerate diplomacy.
“This is tinkering around the edges and it does up America’s role and it will allow America to go to the Iraqis and go to the Russians and everybody and say we are doing more, but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything,” Landis said.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle, Julia Edwards, Roberta Rampton and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Frances Kerry)