After years in which Obama rejected "boots on the ground," the deployment of up to 50 Special Operations troops to northern Syria is a relatively modest commitment. But coupled with the 3,500 troops now stationed in Iraq, it reflects continuing improvisation in a war that has bedeviled Obama and tested the limits of U.S. interests in the region.
The administration made the decision after abandoning the Pentagon's failed efforts to train its own rebel army to take on the Islamic State in Syria, and it underscored a shift toward reliance on Kurdish allies, the most effective forces working with the United States. In effect, the move is an experiment: Can the small contingent of U.S. military personnel make a difference in guiding local fighters? If so, officials made it clear they would consider sending more Americans. (A covert train-and-equip effort run by the CIA is still very much active.)
The first test is likely to come in Raqqa, the Islamic State's stronghold in Syria. U.S. officials hope the commandos will help the Kurds and Syrian Arab allies put pressure on the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, by cutting off routes into the city and targeting leaders. Eventually, they would try to recapture the city outright.
"Ultimately, Raqqa has to be retaken and returned to its citizens and to a decent way of life, which they're not enjoying under the barbaric rule of ISIL now," Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter told reporters during a refueling stop in Alaska on his way to Asia.
But critics on both sides of the ideological spectrum said the president's decision reflected a tactical shift rather than a comprehensive strategy. Republicans belittled it as a paltry move that would not change the dynamics on the ground, especially with Russia now actively involved in the war. Across the aisle, some Democrats expressed distress that Obama was taking the United States deeper into a fratricidal conflict.
Sen. John McCain, the hawkish Arizona Republican who has long pressed for more assertive action in the Middle East, dismissed the deployment as insufficient. "Such grudging incrementalism is woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face," he said.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the newly installed House speaker, saw it as just more piecemeal response. "This commitment of U.S. forces must come with a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL," he said. "Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region."
The move drew support from a handful of leading Democrats but skepticism from others. The top Democrats on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees backed it. "This is a narrow, limited, advise-and-assist effort that will help to loosen ISIS' grip on territory in Syria and support our partners on the ground," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Liberal lawmakers bemoaned what they saw as a slide further into war. "Sending American Special Forces into Syria is a major shift in policy that puts the United States on a potentially dangerous downward slope into a civil war with no end in sight," said Sen.
Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.
Administration officials rejected that view. They said the deployment was in keeping with Obama's policy of working with local forces to counter the Islamic State and was not a broader intervention, even though Obama continues to press for the resignation of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, through talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry.
"It is not a decision to enter into Syria's civil war," Kerry told reporters during a stop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, after leaving Vienna, where he met with other diplomats to seek a cease-fire and political transition in Syria. "It is not an action focused on Assad. It focused exclusively on Daesh and in augmenting our ability to rapidly attack Daesh."
The reviews from the region were mixed. At a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, on Saturday, senior Arab officials and analysts said the plan would fail to defeat the Islamic State or remove Assad.
Iraq's defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, greeted with caution Obama's instruction to advisers to consult Iraqi officials about establishing a Special Operations task force to help target Islamic State leaders there.
"Any such operations would need to be coordinated with the Iraqi government," al-Obeidi said in a brief interview.
And Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and a former ambassador to Washington, praised the deployment of Special Operations troops to Syria. "Anything that is done on the ground is going to be much more effective than anything from the air," he said in an interview after his speech to the conference. "I think this is a big step."
But Jubeir also said the United States needed to widen its goal from simply countering the Islamic State to targeting Assad, as well.
"Any attempts to go after Daesh in Syria without dealing with the root cause, which is Bashar al-Assad, are doomed to failure," he said.
Saying Assad had become a magnet for extremists, Jubeir added, "Ultimately, Daesh will be defeated when Assad is removed."
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which sponsored the security conference, said the latest U.S. effort came up short. "It's part of the administration's gradual but still hesitant approach to the bigger issue," he said. "Assad is still the main cause of the death and destruction in Syria."
Antony J. Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, who is attending the conference, pushed back against the skeptics, citing both increased military assistance to combat the Islamic State and the diplomatic initiative Kerry is leading to remove Assad. "We are intensifying our efforts on all fronts," Blinken told reporters.
He added that deploying commandos to Syria and strengthening air power to support Syrian rebels in the northeast would help them ultimately prevail and, with other moderate rebel groups, have greater influence later in a political transition that would remove Assad.
In Washington, some lawmakers said the Obama administration was not being honest about the ultimate costs of the war, and about the fact that U.S. troops are increasingly being drawn into combat even though the White House insists it is not a combat mission.
Democrats also questioned the legal basis for the intervention and called on Congress to pass a new authorization for military action. Obama has sent a draft of such an authorization, but Congress is deeply divided over it and has not taken it up.
The administration argues that it can send forces into Syria under the authority of legislation passed by Congress in 2001, targeting al-Qaida, after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Unlike Iraq, Syria has not invited in U.S. troops, but the administration argues that it can take action in Syria in defense of Iraq, an ally that has been attacked by Islamic State forces based in Syria.