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Obama outlines plans to expand U.S. Special Operations force in Syria

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 25/04/2016 Missy Ryan, Karen DeYoung, Greg Jaffe
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walk to an arrival ceremony at Schloss Herrenhausen in Hannover, Germany. © Carolyn Kaster/AP President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walk to an arrival ceremony at Schloss Herrenhausen in Hannover, Germany.

HANNOVER, Germany — President Obama announced Monday the addition of up to 250 Special Operations troops to the American advisory force in Syria, the administration’s latest move seeking to intensify pressure on the Islamic State.

Obama said the added forces are needed “keep up this momentum” against the militant group, which controls portions of Syria and Iraq.

The extra forces, which will be placed in areas of Syria that are removed from conflict and will travel in and out of the country, will bring the number of U.S. advisers there to about 300.

A U.S. defense official said the decision is aimed in part at helping to expand the ranks of Arab fighters in a network of rebel groups, now dominated by Kurdish fighters, that the United States is backing as it battles the Islamic State. The additional U.S. forces will advise those troops as they seek to isolate Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital in Syria.

“We’ve had success and obviously want to . . . sustain it, build on it and potentially garner more success,” the official said.

Obama’s intention to send more troops was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The decision to increase the number of Special Operations forces in Iraq and Syria was made this month. It was determined that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter would announce an additional 200 troops for Iraq during a visit to Baghdad and that the Syria announcement would wait for Obama’s arrival in Germany, where he is holding talks with the leaders of Germany, Britain, France and Italy.

As part of the Iraq announcement Carter made last week, Obama also has authorized U.S. commanders there to use Apache attack helicopters and deploy American advisers with lower-level Iraqi units to assist local troops in a future offensive to reclaim the city of Mosul. U.S. officials think those measures will enhance the effectiveness of Iraqi troops, but they also will expose U.S. forces to greater risk.

The increase is part of an overall acceleration in the fight against the Islamic State. Despite a string of what the administration has described as successes — including territory reclaimed from the militants in Iraq and Syria and the severing of supply and communication lines between Islamic State forces in the two countries — some aspects of the conflict have gone more slowly, or been less successful, than anticipated.

While Iraqi military forces, backed by U.S. air power and other enhancements, retook the city of Ramadi early this year, plans to move toward Mosul, in northern Iraq, have dragged as the Baghdad government contends with economic and political difficulties, and the melding of Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish military forces into a unified offensive force has proved problematic.

The Iraqi military also continues to struggle with issues of morale, leadership and logistics.

In an interview last week with CBS News, Obama said he believed preparations for the Mosul offensive — what the military calls “shaping” operations to surround and weaken Islamic State forces there — should be finished this year and allow the “eventual” retaking of the city.

The plan to move toward Raqqa follows last year’s successful northern Syria offensive that was led primarily by Kurdish forces, aided by U.S. airstrikes, with some support from a group of Sunni opposition fighters the United States has been struggling to support. Raqqa, farther to the south, is a Sunni city that Kurdish forces are not eager to move toward, and where they would not be welcome.

A promising, partial cease-fire in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has seriously frayed in recent weeks, sparking renewed fighting in the northwest region near the Turkish border and complicating administration plans to begin air operations in aid of an opposition attempt to stop an Islamic State advance in that area.

Speaking to reporters late last week after a visit to Iraq, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Obama had not at that point made a decision to send the additional troops to Syria. But he said the president had promised to consider granting more resources as plans came together for advancing Syrian forces’ campaign against the Islamic State.

“It’s linked to our partners on the ground, in supporting our partners on the ground and their continued operations,” he said.

Jaffe reported from Hanover, Germany, and DeYoung reported from Washington.

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