WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama plans to announce Monday he is sending up to 250 additional military personnel to Syria to help local forces fighting Islamic State, significantly expanding the small American footprint inside the war-ravaged country, according to U.S. officials.
Mr. Obama recently signed off on the new deployment, which will increase the total number of American military personnel operating on the ground inside Syria from 50 to about 300, the U.S. officials said.
The new deployment comes despite Mr. Obama’s long-standing reservations about sending Americans into harm’s way in the face of growing pressure to do more to counter Islamic State. The move also means Mr. Obama, having failed to achieve his goal of ending U.S. involvements in either Iraq or Afghanistan, will have added a dangerous assignment to the Pentagon’s responsibilities.
Mr. Obama agreed to expand the U.S. presence in Syria after being persuaded by his top military advisers and others that additional U.S. personnel would allow the Pentagon to extend recent gains against Islamic State, according to a senior administration official. He is expected to announce the move Monday in Hannover, Germany, as he wraps up a weeklong foreign trip.
A major focus of the additional American personnel will be trying to get more Sunni Arabs to join the fight alongside Kurdish units in northeastern Syria. U.S. officials say they believe they will need a larger Sunni Arab force to help clear and hold Arab-dominated communities in and around Raqqa, the Islamic State stronghold, as an eventual assault begins there against Islamic State and members of the militant group are pushed out of those areas.
So far, the U.S. has largely relied on Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, increasing tensions with North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey, which sees the Kurds as a threat as that group seeks greater autonomy in the region.
U.S. officials have sought to reassure their Turkish counterparts about the new American deployments in northeastern Syria by emphasizing that the goal of the expanded mission will be to try to get more Sunni Arabs, rather than Kurds, into the fight, according to U.S. officials.
Turkish officials had no immediate comment.
The Pentagon has struggled in the past to convince Sunni Arabs to make the fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIL, a priority because many of them see Syrian government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad as their No. 1 enemy.
Like the roughly 50 American special operations forces already inside Syria, the new personnel won’t technically serve in combat roles, though they will be close to the front lines, increasing the dangers they could face, according to U.S. officials.
The 250 additional personnel, who will deploy into Syria in phases, will include special operations forces, as well as a number of service members who will provide support to those forces, including medical, intelligence and logistics personnel, according to officials.
U.S. officials declined to specify how many of the 250 new military personnel will be special operations forces.
Mr. Obama has dismissed any large-scale military intervention in Syria, and in a 2014 address he said his strategy for countering Islamic State “won’t involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
But he sees the role of special operations forces differently because they can have a large impact though only a limited number of highly-trained personnel are at risk. After the deployment of the initial 50 service members was disclosed, Mr. Obama told CBS News last December, “You know, when I said, ‘No boots on the ground,’ I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert.”
U.S.-backed forces in Syria, led by Kurdish units, have taken back about 16% of the territory which Islamic State seized in Syria, according to U.S. officials.
A senior administration official pointed in particular to a recent operation to push Islamic State militants out of the northern city of Shaddadi. The battle was expected to take weeks, but took days instead, a sign of the effectiveness of Kurdish forces when supported by U.S. air power, the official said.
“They help those on the ground to be more effective, and they are there to help them do what they do and to help them do it better,” a senior Obama administration official said of the special operations forces.
Some 60% of the local forces which retook Shaddadi were Kurdish, while Sunni Arab units made up about 40%, according to U.S. officials. But the officials said the Kurds did most of the fighting, underlining the need to bolster Arab contingents before the U.S.-led coalition moves on Raqqa.
Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said last week that the first group of about 200 Arabs graduated from their first basic training class and joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a patchwork group of about 30,000 fighters comprised of Arab, Kurdish, Assyrian and Turkmen forces.
The 200 graduates were trained not by U.S. personnel but by local leaders, according to U.S. defense officials, a sign, they say, that Kurdish leaders also recognize the need for greater Arab participation in the campaign.
The Pentagon’s initial train-and-equip program, which aimed to create a Sunni Arab army of about 15,000 fighters over three years to fight Islamic State, ended in failure last year after it produced only a handful of trained fighters. That prompted the shift in U.S. military support to Kurds in northeastern Syria who operate with some Arab forces under a group dubbed the Syrian Arab Coalition. That coalition of about 5,000 fighters, more than half of them Sunni Arabs, is part of the larger SDF force in Syria.
Under the Pentagon’s revised train-and-equip program, special operations forces in northeastern Syria will identify additional Sunni Arab commanders and battalion leaders who are already fighting Islamic State, and then instruct them in how to identify targets for U.S. airstrikes, according to U.S. officials.
The Pentagon then would provide those commanders’ fighters with arms, ammunition and other equipment for specific missions. American personnel on the ground would determine whether those missions were successful or not, and which Arab commanders and battalion leaders to provide additional supplies to for other missions. One American official described the approach as “drop, op and assess.”
So far, the Pentagon has delivered about half a dozen shipments of ammunition and other assistance to local forces in northeastern Syria since last fall.
The U.S. is ramping up its role in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq, too.
Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in Baghdad that the U.S. would deploy an additional 217 military personnel to serve in Iraq in the train-and-assist mission there. Mr. Carter, on the tail end of a trip that took him through east Asia and the Middle East, also said Baghdad had agreed to the deployment of American Apache attack helicopters and HIMARS, a ground-based rocket artillery system, to help protect Iraqi forces.
The announcement of the additional military personnel brings the total number of personnel which the Pentagon acknowledges publicly is allowed in Iraq to just more than 4,000.