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U.S. steps up military involvement against IS in Syria as Kerry meets for diplomatic talks

The White House confirmed that U.S. commandos are going into Northern Syria as part of a coalition aimed at dismantling the Islamic State, marking a shift from President Obama's previous stance against committing ground troops. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry attended talks on finding a diplomatic solution in Syria. Judy Woodruff learns more from Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The United States steps up its mission in Syria, part of a coalition aimed at dismantling the Islamic State, as leaders from the U.S., Russia and Iran meet in Vienna trying to find a political end to the civil war.

    Confirmation that commandos are going into Northern Syria came at the day’s White House briefing.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    The core of our military strategy inside of Syria is to build up the capacity of local forces.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Spokesman Josh Earnest gave few details on whether the U.S. effort will aid Kurdish or Arab fighters or both.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    The president did make a decision to intensify that support by offering a small number of U.S. special operations military personnel to offer them some advice and assistance on the ground as they take the fight to ISIL.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That small number, Earnest said, is fewer than 50. And he insisted they will not be on a combat mission.

  • JOSH EARNEST:

    The responsibility that they have is not to lead the charge to take a hill. It still means that they’re in a dangerous situation. It still means that they will have all of the equipment that they need to protect themselves if necessary.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    U.S. special operations troops have conducted raids inside Syria, but this will be their first sustained presence. It comes amid Russia’s month-old air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And it marks a shift for President Obama. He had said repeatedly he wouldn’t commit ground troops in Syria.

    The military developments came as Secretary of State John Kerry was in Vienna for talks on a diplomatic solution in Syria. There was no agreement on the future of Assad, but the U.S., Russia and other nations directed the U.N. to try again to bring Syria’s government and opposition groups to the table.

  • JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State:

    The United States position is, there is no way that President Assad can unite and govern Syria, and we believe that Syrians deserve a different choice. And our goal is to work with Syria’s many factions to develop that choice. But we can’t allow that difference to get in the way of the possibility of diplomacy to end the killing and to find the solution.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The ministers will hold another round of talks in two weeks.

    Meanwhile, the killing in Syria continued apace. Opposition activists said a government rocket barrage in a Damascus suburb left at least 57 dead and many more wounded.

    We take a closer look at the decision to send special operations forces to Syria with Greg Jaffe, who covers the Pentagon for The Washington Post.

    Greg, welcome back to the program.

    So the White House is saying that these special operations forces are there to help what they call moderates in the opposition forces. What does that mean? Who is that?

  • GREG JAFFE, The Washington Post:

    You know, it’s primarily a Kurdish group called the YPG up north, along with some — what they call the Syrian-Arab coalition, which is a coalition, sort of, of Arab fighters who are fighting alongside the Kurds up in the north.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What’s the significance of singling out those two groups to help them?

  • GREG JAFFE:

    You know, I think the first thing is, I think they — we feel like they share our values or at least our goals. They’re sort of moderate Syrian forces, and they have shown some success.

    I think that’s what the administration is trying to build on here. The YPG in particular, backed by kind of American airstrikes, has been able to take back some ground from the Islamic State. So, in a place where they haven’t seen a lot of success, it’s something.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, when they say advice and assistance, which is how the White House described it, what does that mean? Exactly what are they going to be doing for them?

  • GREG JAFFE:

    You know, the Pentagon officials we spoke to said that they primarily would be at the headquarters level. So, they won’t be on the front lines. They won’t be calling in airstrikes from what we call sometimes first point of cover and concealment. They will be further back than that.

    And I think a big part of what they do is assess the forces, figure out what they need, what equipment, weaponry the U.S. can help provide them and then also help them plan the operation, make sure that they have folks in the right places, that they’re coordinating as best as possible with U.S. airpower.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So the mission here is mainly anti-ISIS or anti-Assad?

  • GREG JAFFE:

    No, it’s anti-ISIS. I think that’s the complicating factor of the Russians being involved as well, because I think a lot of the forces that we have worked with in the north are looking south to help their brethren who feel kind of battered by the Assad regime and by Russia, but I think that’s a fight that we have decided we don’t want to pick right now.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Greg Jaffe, we heard the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, say this is not a combat mission. He said it’s not a major departure from what the U.S. has been doing.

    How different is it from what the U.S. has been doing? And have there been covert operations like this already going on?

  • GREG JAFFE:

    Well, there certainly have some been raids that are covert. Have there been folks on the ground doing advising and assisting on sort of a long-term basis? Not that we know of.

    So it does seem like a departure. Look, it’s not a lot of troops. I think it’s less than 50. But, emotionally, it’s a big deal. We haven’t had boots on the ground in Syria before, and now we do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Greg Jaffe at The Washington Post, we thank you.

  • GREG JAFFE:

    Yes, thanks for having me.

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