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What's Behind U.S. Mission 'Shift' Into Syria?

by Halimah Abdullah /  / Updated 

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Military and foreign policy experts say the shift in strategy against ISIS announced by the White House is overdue, but warned that it might not be enough.

The White House announced on Friday it would put fewer than 50 special operations forces into Syria to work with moderate opposition groups fighting ISIS. The move came amid criticism that the U.S. strategy for defeating ISIS through airstrikes and training local fighters hasn't worked.

Related: U.S. to Deploy Special Operations Forces in Syria: Officials

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and national security specialist at the Brookings Institution, told NBC News that the evidence has been mounting for some time.

"Clearly, our Syria strategy has been failing for four years," he said. "The renewed tensions in U.S.-Turkey collaboration, the lack of progress in establishing a safe zone in the north and working together with the Kurds, and now the Russian intervention have underscored how much of a dilemma we face."

"So while some of us have viewed the situation in Syria as very serious for a long time, it is increasingly hard for the administration even to attempt to argue otherwise," he said.

Related: ISIS Attacks Soared in Past 3 Months: IHS Jane's Database

The White House stressed Friday that the military moves were an "expansion" rather than a "change" in U.S. strategy against ISIS.

The special operations forces could work with Kurdish and allied actors who have come together under the umbrella of the "Syrian Democratic Forces," according to a senior U.S. official.

"It will not be their responsibility to lead the charge up the hill," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, acknowledging that the commandos will be in a perilous situation. "There is no denying the amount of risk that they are taking on here."

Retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs,a military analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, said that it is possible the number of U.S. forces needed and the time required to complete the mission could increase over time.

It's not clear how much of the administration’s announcement was about something new or an admission of something that’s already occurring, said Kevin Baron, a national security and military analyst for NBC News.

Related: Pentagon Ends Program to Train Syrian Rebels, Starts Revamped Initiative

"This has been brewing, the idea the Pentagon wants to talk about the way the war has been executed,” said Baron, who is editor of Defense One.

"A few things forced their hand," he added.

One of those things was the circumstances surrounding the death of Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, killed during a raid by U.S. and Kurdish commandos in Iraq on a prison where ISIS was holding captives.

Related: Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, U.S. Commando Killed in ISIS Raid, Ran to Gunfight

After months of denying that U.S. troops would be in any combat role in Iraq, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter late last week acknowledged that the situation U.S. soldiers found themselves in during the raid in Hawija was combat.

"This is combat and things are complicated," Carter said, telling the Senate Armed Services committee that the U.S. will begin "direct action on the ground" against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria in an attempt to increase pressure on the terror group.

The White House on Friday again stressed the administration has "no intention of long term ground combat."

Earnest drew a contrast between the "large scale, long-term combat operation in Iraq" under former President George W. Bush and the Obama administration's mission in Syria.

Obama "does not believe that that military option was in our best interest and he does not believe that that is something we should do again," Earnest told reporters on Friday.

"So that is why our special operations personnel inside of Syria have a very different mission ... to build the capacity of local forces so they can be even more effective," he said.

Such distinctions are going to be a key part of White House messaging and strategy, military and foreign policy experts said.

"This is the way the war on terrorism is going to be fought and is going to be fought for the foreseeable future,” Baron said. "What’s going to change is the way the Obama administration talks about it."

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