WASHINGTON — The United States is set to deploy troops on the ground in Syria for the first time to advise and assist rebel forces combating ISIS, multiple officials said Friday.
The White House is expected to announce that the U.S. will deploy a small number of U.S. Special Operations forces to Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria.
An official said “fewer than 50” Special Operations forces will be deployed. The American troops will help local Kurdish and Arab forces fighting ISIS with logistics and are planning to bolster their efforts.
The deployment of U.S. special forces is the most significant escalation of the Americans military campaign against ISIS to date.
The U.S. has bombed targets in Syria since September 2014 and has also largely failed in a mission to recruit and train moderate rebels in Syria.
In recent months, the U.S. has also bolstered its aid to local forces, air-dropping weapons, ammunition and other supplies to rebel forces inside Syria.
U.S. Special Operations have previously conducted some secretive missions on the ground in Syria as well.
But the deployment marks the first permanent presence of U.S. ground troops in Syria since the U.S. began leading an international effort last year to confront ISIS, the militant Islamist group which now controls broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The troops are set to be deployed to Syria in the coming days, according to officials.
The decision comes on the heels of the first death of an American military service member in the fight against ISIS. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died last week in Iraq as he and other American Special Operations forces conducted a raid to rescue hostages held by ISIS.
The troops to be sent to Syria are not expected to serve on the front lines with rebel forces.
But they are entering a very hot combat zone and have the right to engage the enemy if they come under fire. They could also join Syrian and Kurdish forces on raids if they get explicit permission from Washington.
The troop deployment also comes as Russia has upped its military involvement in Syria.
Earlier this month, Russia deployed forces to Syria and launched a bombing campaign that it claims has been targeting ISIS. But the locations of Russian airstrikes have led U.S. military officials to say they believe the Russian effort is aimed more at bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power than fighting ISIS.