VIENNA: The United States announced Friday its first sustained deployment of ground troops to Syria to help the anti-jihadist fight, as major powers remained divided over President Bashar al-Assad’s fate.
The decision to send a small special forces team marks an escalation in Washington’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group, which has seized Syrian territory despite more than a year of US-led air strikes.
The White House rejected accusations that President Barack Obama was backtracking on a promise not to put boots on the ground.
“Our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed,” spokesman Josh Earnest said. “These forces do not have a combat mission.”
Officials said an initial deployment of “fewer than 50” special forces would be sent to northern Syria — parts of which are controlled by US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces fighting IS.
Washington will also deploy A-10 ground-attack planes and F-15 tactical fighter jets to the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, as part of the ramped up effort.
The announcement came as key backers of Syria’s rival sides meeting in Vienna sought to narrow their divisions over a conflict that has claimed a quarter of a million lives and triggered an exodus of refugees to Europe.
Top diplomats from 17 countries, as well as the United Nations and the European Union, gathered for the talks bringing together all the main outside players in the four-year-old crisis for the first time.
The Syrian regime and the opposition were not represented.
‘Agree to disagree’
Regime allies Russia — which has waged a month of intense air strikes against Syrian rebels — and Iran are resisting Western and Saudi pressure to force Assad from power.
“Some countries have tried to include a timetable for the departure of Bashar al-Assad in the statement (issued after the meeting) but with the efforts made, this part has been removed,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Vienna, quoted by Iranian news agencies.
US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that he had “agreed to disagree” with his Iranian and Russian counterparts on the fate of the Syrian leader.
“The United States’ position is that there is no way that President Assad can unite and govern Syria. And we believe that Syrians deserve a different choice,” he said.
“But we can’t allow that difference to get in the way of the possibility that diplomacy can end the killing and find the solution.”
He said the participants had agreed to ask the United Nations to broker a peace deal between the regime and opposition to clear the way for a new constitution and UN-supervised elections.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that Assad’s fate “needs to be decided by Syrians” through elections.
The idea has been rejected by rebels who say a vote would be impossible in the current circumstances, with millions of Syrians displaced, cities standing in ruins and two-thirds of the country in the hands of jihadists and other armed groups.
Russia said Friday its airforce had hit 1,623 “terrorist targets” in Syria over the past month, including 51 training camps.
Lavrov criticised the US deployment of ground troops, saying any action should be done with the agreement of the Syrian regime.
“Russia has consistently advocated that the fight against terrorism be conducted on the basis of international law, which means that in the event of a military operation — be it by the air force or ground forces and contingents — there needs to be the consent of the concerned governments and the UN Security Council,” he said.
More talks ahead
The participants in Vienna agreed to meet again in two weeks for more talks..
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir — whose kingdom supports anti-regime rebels — was sat at Friday’s talks almost as far from his Iranian counterpart as was possible at the tight U-shaped table in a conference room of Vienna’s Imperial Hotel.
Yet even getting Iran and Saudi Arabia — the Middle East’s foremost Shiite and Sunni powers which back opposing sides in conflicts across the Arab world — to be in the same room was seen as progress.
As the participants met, at least 91 people, including 17 children, were killed on Friday in attacks on opposition strongholds in the north and outside Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Most died in government strikes on Douma, a town on the eastern edges of the capital, the Britain-based monitoring group said.
And underscoring the perils facing those fleeing the war, 26 migrants, including at least 17 children, drowned during the night making the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece as they made a desperate bid to reach Europe.