US to send special forces to Syria as peace talks begin in Vienna

Sending special forces into region seen as major shift in US policy

US secretary of state John Kerry with delegates from a number of powers in Vienna for talks on resolving the Syrian conflict. Photograph: US Department of State/EPA.

US secretary of state John Kerry with delegates from a number of powers in Vienna for talks on resolving the Syrian conflict. Photograph: US Department of State/EPA.

 

The US is to send special forces to Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria in a significant shift in Washington’s policy in the 4½-year Syrian civil war.

As world powers met in Vienna for the most broad-based peace talks since the Syrian crisis began, the White House announced that “less than 50” special troops would be sent to the Kurdish-controlled territory, raising immediate questions as to whether President Obama was in breach of his promise not to put “boots on the ground” to fight Islamic State militants in the area.

The forces’ mission will be “to help co-ordinate local ground forces and coalition efforts” against IS in northern Syria, the Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse spokesman Josh Earnest said the troops would help local Kurdish troops fighting Islamic State in the area, arguing that it signalled an “intensification” of the already-agreed US strategy.

“There are now moderate opposition forces that are 45 miles (72km) outside Raqqa. The president is prepared to intensify the elements that have shown promise,” he said. “This is an intensification of a strategy he discussed a year ago.”

The US launched air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria just over a year ago, with a number of allies including France, and the Netherlands participating in the attacks. Britain also took part in air strikes against IS in Iraq but not in Syria.

The surprise announcement came as US Secretary of State John Kerry met a number of representatives of world powers in Vienna for peace talks on the Syrian civil war.

Saudi Arabia and the US, who have backed rebel forces opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, were present, along with Russia and Iran who are strong supporters of the Syrian president. Britain, France and Germany were also in attendance at the most substantive peace talks since the conflict began.

Mr Kerry said it was a coincidence that the announcement to deploy special troops coincided with the Vienna talks, telling reporters that he wasn’t aware a decision had been made until earlier on Friday.

Co-operation with Russia

Sergei Lavrov

As expected no significant progress was made on the contentious question of Bashar Al-Assad’s involvement in a transitional government, which is opposed by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Mr Lavrov said the talks had failed to generate agreement over the fate of the Syrian president, adding that he believed “the Syrian people should decide Assad’s fate”.

Saudi Arabia said, ahead of the meeting, that Iran must accept that Assad “must go within a specific timeframe” and before any new elections. Russia said at the weekend that it favoured early elections in Syria.

The presence of Iran at the talks signalled the changing international status of the once-isolated state since its decision to endorse a historic nuclear deal earlier this year.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Kerry said that talks would resume within the next two weeks, stressing that there would be “no quick solution” to the situation in Syria. “This is the beginning of a new diplomatic process, not the final chapter,” he said, adding all parties were convinced of the need to get back to negotiations.

More than 250,000 people have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, while more than 10 million people are believed to have been displaced.

‘Historical’

Federica Mogherini

“We had, for the first time, all the actors around the table and, I would say, a very constructive atmosphere.”

The meeting in Vienna took place as 40 people were reported to have been killed and 100 injured during attacks by government fighters in the small town of Douma, just outside Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights.