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United States sending special forces to Syria

A small number of U.S. special operations forces are being deployed to northern Syria to help fight ISIS
White House approves deployment of special operations forces to Syria 06:25

The United States is sending a small number of special forces into Syria, expanding the United States' involvement in the fight against ISIS there from the air to the ground.

Less than 50 special operators will be based in Northern Syria, CBS News' Margaret Brennan confirmed Friday morning, to work with groups like Kurdish Peshmerga forces. While this puts boots on the ground, the U.S. does not consider this a combat deployment, the administration says.

White House briefing on U.S. troops in Syria 08:04

"The mission hasn't changed," White House spokesman Josh Earnest insisted to reporters Friday afternoon. "The mission the president announced on September 10,2014 was the mission that the Department of Defense implemented... and that is the mission that remains in place today."

Rather, the addition of a few dozen ground troops in Syria will "further intensify" the elements of the United States' strategy that are working, Earnest said -- namely, assisting local fighters.

Aircraft continue to destroy ISIS targets every day in Iraq and Syria, but as CBS News' David Martin and Elizabeth Palmer reported on Thursday, the Obama administration is frustrated by the glacial rate of progress.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier in the week told Congress about a revamped strategy to fight ISIS, which boils down to "the 'three R's' -- Raqqa, Ramadi and Raids." Specifically, the U.S. military will support Syrian opposition forces as they engage in more aggressive fighting in Raqqa, where ISIS has declared its capital in Syria. And the U.S.-led coalition is also supporting Iraq's security forces in Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province in western Iraq.

Sec. of Defense: No timeline for defeating ISIS 03:04

The revamped strategy also includes more robust air raids, at a time when Russia is also conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Carter also suggested stepped up "raids" could include supporting more on-the-ground missions.

John Kerry attempts to broker Syria ceasefire in Vienna talks 01:37

"We won't hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly," Carter told the Armed Services Committee. "Whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground."

Last week, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler became the first American killed in action when he was mortally wounded in a raid on an ISIS prison. The United States' stepped-up strategy could increase the risk of American combat casualties.

A White House official stressed to CBS news that the administration has no intention of changing its broader counter ISIS mission to train, advise and assist local partners in the fight. Furthermore, the official said there is no intention of engaging in long-term, large-scale combat operations.

When President Obama announced his counter-ISIS strategy in September 2014, he assured the nation it would not include combat troops on the ground in the region.

"I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Mr. Obama said. "It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."

Mr. Obama did not announce the addition of ground troops in Syria himself on Friday because, Earnest said, "The fact is, our strategy in Syria hasn't changed."

"This is an intensification of a strategy the president announced more than a year ago," he reiterated. "These forces do not have a combat mission... This is not in any way an attempt to diminish the risk they will face or the bravery they will need to summon to carry out this mission... They are at risk, and there's no denying that. At the same time, the responsibilities they have there are different."

Earnest said for security reasons he could not elaborate on what the special forces will be doing in Syria.

In addition to sending a few dozen ground forces into Syria, President Obama has authorized a number of additional steps to fight ISIS, a senior administration official says. Those include deploying A-10s and F-15s to the Incirlik airbase in Turkey, consulting with the Iraqi government on the establishment of a Special Operations Force (SOF) task force to target ISIS leaders, and enhancing the United States' counter-ISIS military assistance to Jordan and Lebanon.

The senior administration official said that the White House has "always been clear that this would be a multi-year campaign, and that continues to be the case."

Furthermore, the official stressed that the United States' is not just responding militarily. The U.S. continues to lead a 65-partner coalition that is working to halt the flow of foreign fighters, constrict ISIS's finances, stabilize liberated communities, and counter ISIS's messaging.

This new step was coordinated with Secretary of State John Kerry's trip to Vienna, where he made a diplomatic push for peace in Syria, Margaret Brennan reports. With leaders from nearly 20 nations gathered in Vienna, the Qataris, Saudis and others were informed of the United States' ground presence. However, the Russians have already objected to American troops on Syrian soil without authorization from the Syrian government.

Russia and Iran are two of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest supporters, and the Obama administration reluctantly agreed to bring the Iranians into the discussions for the first time. Both Iran and Russia agreed to go to Vienna to at least talk about a political transition to replace Assad, but there are serious disagreements about when would leave power and whether it would work to the advantage of ISIS if he left too quickly.

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