President Barack Obama on Monday announced the deployment of up to 250 U.S. military personnel to Syria, mostly special operations forces, to assist local troops trying to dislodge Islamic State extremists. He called the move essential to keeping up momentum against the group.
The deployment will bring the number of personnel to roughly 300, up from about 50 special operations forces currently in Syria.
Obama revealed his decision a week after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that more than 200 U.S. troops soon will be headed to Iraq, where local forces are also battling Islamic State militants who control areas of that country. He said none of the new forces heading to Syria would participate in direct combat.
“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,” Obama said during a speech in Germany that capped a weeklong trip that also took him to Saudi Arabia and Great Britain.
The Islamic State Group was a focus of private talks with his counterparts in all three stops.
Senior U.S. officials have been touting the success of the existing U.S. forces in Syria, including their effectiveness in assisting local forces and generating critical intelligence that helps the U.S.-led coalition against IS target insurgents.
“We want to accelerate that progress,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Obama said U.S.- European collaboration must extend to the threat posed by IS. As he announced deeper U.S. involvement, he urged Europe to step up, too.
Before returning to Washington, Obama huddled with the leaders of Great Britain, Germany, France and Italy. He said ahead of the meeting that he planned to ask those nations to step up their training and airstrike contributions to the campaign against the Islamic State group and to provide more economic aid to rebuild parts of Iraq recaptured from the Islamic State Group.
“Europe and NATO can still do more,” he said. “We need to do everything in our power to stop them.”
Obama discussed his troop decision briefly during a broader speech on U.S.-European relations and the importance to the world of continued European unity. Obama urged Europe’s leaders to pay attention to income inequality, which he said creates wedges among populations, and other issues including education for young people and equal pay for equal work for women.
“If we do not solve these problems, we start seeing those who would try to exploit these fears and frustrations and channel them in a destructive way,” Obama said. He decried an “us-versus-them” mentality that breeds animosity toward immigrants, Muslims and others.
“This is a defining moment and what happens on this continent has consequences for people around the globe,” Obama said. “If a unified, peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue.”
The president’s appeal for Europe to stick together came days after he made a forceful argument while in London against Great Britain exiting the European Union. The possibility of Britain leaving the EU in a June referendum, along with the regional terrorist threat and the Syria refugee crisis, has raised questions about the strength of European unity.
Libya was also expected to be a topic of discussion at Obama’s high-level meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo.
Obama discussed Libya during separate talks with Cameron and Merkel. He recently said failure to plan for the fallout after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011 was his biggest mistake.
Libya since has descended into chaos and become a base for the Islamic State Group. But Obama has said he has no plans to send in ground troops and prefers to support a newly installed unity government in the North African country.
Obama has said he remains opposed to large-scale U.S. military intervention in either Iraq or Syria. But he has incrementally deepened U.S. involvement in both countries, opening him up to charges of mission creep.
Carter last week announced the deployment of an additional 217 U.S. troops to Iraq, bringing the total to just over 4,000 in the first major increase in nearly a year. Eight Apache helicopters were also being sent to Iraq for the first time to help fight the Islamic State Group.
Both moves were cast as helping Iraqi forces as they prepare to retake the key northern city of Mosul.