Russia's decision to bomb pretty much everyone opposed to Syria's Assad regime -- including the guys the US was training and funding -- startled the West last month. But at least we didn't have any personnel there at the time, right?
Well, that might be about to change:
(Guardian) - Barack Obama has ordered up to 50 special operations troops to Syria, US officials announced on Friday, in an apparent breach of a promise not to put US "boots on the ground", to fight Islamic State militants in the country.
The Pentagon has also been "consulting" with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to establish a special operations taskforce to fight Isis "leaders and networks" across the Syrian border in Iraq, a senior administration official told the Guardian on Friday.
But the White House insisted that its overall strategy to combat Isis remained the same and said the special forces troops would be helping coordinate local ground forces in the north of the country and other non-specified "coalition efforts" to counter Isis rather than engaging in major ground operations.
"The decision the president has made is to further intensify our support for our forces who have made progress against Isis," the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said at a news conference.
The move came as diplomats worked in Vienna to restart talks on a political transition that would remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. At the discussions with leaders from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, framed the troop announcement as part of a shifting policy that included this major diplomatic push to initiate talks that would bring about a political transition in Syria.
"We are intensifying our counter-Daesh campaign and we are intensifying our diplomatic efforts to end the conflict," Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Isis. "That is why President Obama made an announcement about stepping up the fight against Daesh."
The injection of US special forces in Syria seemed at odds with earlier statements Obama has made about not placing troops in the country.
Barack Obama in 2013: 'I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.'
"I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,"Obama said in an address in September 2013.
Asked about that "boots on the ground" statement, Earnest said the quote was taken "out of context".
"The quote that you pulled there is a very different situation," Earnest told a reporter. "He [Obama] said he was not prepared to put boots on the ground to take out the Assad regime. That was precisely the mistake the previous administration had made ... to take down Saddam Hussein."
The US military has conducted narrow ground missions inside Syria, such as one in May in which special forces killed an Islamic State commander in a raid the Pentagon said took place in the east of the country.
A $500m effort over the last two years by the United States to train Arab opposition forces in Syria failed. General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command, told the Senate last month that it had resulted in only a handful of fighters actively battling the jihadi army. "We're talking four or five," Austin said.
This has an eerily familiar feel. A few "advisors" go in, and don't seem to accomplish much as the situation deteriorates. Then a few become a few hundred, and advice becomes training becomes mission design and leadership. And we're off to the races.
But this time around Russia might easily accelerate the mission creep by bombing our "advisors" since they probably won't know exactly where our guys are at any given time and all the rebels look alike.
And it's really not a comfort to hear that the US is also sending troops to Iraq, since some Iraqis are asking Russia to bomb ISIS in their country.