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Small Number Of U.S. Special Forces Will Help Fight ISIS In Syria


Today, the White House announced the first deployment of U.S. forces to Syria. Dozens of special operations troops will be sent to advise and assist Arab and Kurdish rebel forces fighting ISIS. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us now. And, Tom, let's talk about that phrase, advise and assist. That's the official language the U.S. government is using. What does it mean? Will these Americans be fighting?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, I'm told no, Ari, they'll not be trigger-pullers, not kicking doors, as one officer told me. They'll be based it a headquarters, but clearly they'll be in harm's way. They'll be in northern Syria. And they'll be assessing a large group of Arab, Kurd and Turkmen fighters - collectively, thousands of fighters. And these fighters have announced plans to move toward the Islamic State headquarters in the city of Raqqa. And these commandos - U.S. commandos - will come from their base in northern Iraq. They want to get a sense of how prepared these fighters are, what they need, how's the planning going. Now, the U.S. already has dropped some 50 tons of ammunition to one of these groups. But amazingly, they say they still don't know a lot about them. And we're told that some of these groups could get more equipment, including weapons, but the U.S. wants to first assess them.

SHAPIRO: Tom, can you help us answer the question of why now, especially since President Obama has offered assurances in the past that he would not do this? Here's a clip just from 2013.


BARACK OBAMA: I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.

BOWMAN: He did say that. And the White House says they're still just advisers. But for the first time, U.S. forces will be spending weeks, if not months, inside Syria, and not inside some secure American base. It clearly goes beyond what they've been doing so far, despite what the White House says. And the White House wants to get things moving. That's why they're doing this. The Syrian rebels have gained some ground in the northern part of Syria, but Defense Secretary Ash Carter says, listen, it's a priority to move on Raqqa. And taking this Islamic State city could have reverberations next door in Iraq. The Islamic State fighters right now move across the border into Iraq, so that's what they're trying to prevent.

SHAPIRO: Let's look across that border at the city of Ramadi, in Iraq. Secretary Carter says it's a priority. What does the White House say about it?

BOWMAN: Well, what they're saying is it's possible that you could see some American advisors leave their bases in Iraq - maybe a handful or so, not too many - and work with Iraqi forces at the brigade level, again, to win back Ramadi. There's also a possibility - nothing firm yet - that American Apache helicopters could be used in the assault on Ramadi. Now, we've been told for about four or five months that the Iraqi forces would be moving on Ramadi. There's been frustration on the part of the U.S. The Iraqis say, listen, there are a lot of roadside bombs, vehicle bombs; it's taking a lot of time. But they're getting more tribal fighters now, better commanders. So the sense is they'll move fairly soon. But the U.S. thinks they need that extra help to get it done.

SHAPIRO: Tom, help us understand when the U.S. can be said to be at war in Syria. I mean, first, the president sent in advisers. There are drones. There are attack-aircraft, airstrikes. And now, today, we hear that U.S. forces are going to be going outside bases with local forces. This sounds like the U.S. is fighting a war in Syria.

BOWMAN: Well, right. And some would call it mission creep and that there is clearly that concern. But clearly, this strategy - training and advising local forces, providing them with U.S. air cover - has not moved as quickly as the White House would like. So they're moving U.S. troops closer to the front lines. Now, the unanswered question is this - what if these few advisers are not enough? What if these Syrian and Iraqi forces still aren't up to the task, and then what? And nobody, at this point, wants to answer that question.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.