The Obama administration is expected to announce a small deployment of U.S. special operations forces to go to Syria to train and assist rebel forces in fighting the Islamic State.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the move "intensifies our strategy" to help Syrians take the fight to the Islamic State "in their own country." He said that it could pose a greater challenge than Iraq, were there is a standing military, whereas in Syria, the U.S. will be training rebel forces.
"The president does expect that they can have an impact on intensifying our strategy for building the capacity of local forces inside of Syria to taking the fight on the ground to ISIL in their own country," Earnest said. "That has been the core element to the military component of our strategy from the beginning."
This comes a little over two years after President Barack Obama pledged, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”
The deployment will involve fewer than 50 special forces troops moved close to the front lines against Islamic State forces, according to the Associated Press. Further, airstrikes will be stepped up. Reuters reported the number would be between 20 and 30.
"The less than 50 number is accurate," Earnest said. "I cannot be more specific than that."
The increased U.S. support for rebels opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad, for the purposes of combatting the Islamic State, comes after the Russian government has backed Assad as a means to combat the Sunni militant group.
The announcement comes as Obama administration officials have continued to insist that U.S. forces are not engaged in ground combat in Iraq and Syria.
NBC News reports that a senior U.S. official said forces will be stationed in northern Syria.
A White House official told ABC News that the move is consistent with the current mission, which has been to train and advise opposition to the Islamic State. Thus far, the train, advise and assist mission has been with the Iraqi military. Now it expands to the Syrian opposition.
The New York Times however characterized this as "actually a huge shift for a president who has said repeatedly that he will not put American combat boots on the ground in Syria."
In September 2013, when seeking to make a case for a targeted strike regarding the Syrian civil war, Obama promised American combat troops will not be on the ground in Syria.
“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” Obama said. “I will not pursue an open ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective.”
Asked about the statement, Earnest said Obama was asserting he would not use U.S. forces to overthrow the Assad regime.
“You’ve read one quote that, to be fair, is out of context,” Earnest told a reporter. “The situation that the president has described is a description of the kind of mission that our men and women will have in our counter-ISIL campaign.”
However, on Sept. 30 of this year, speaking about the U.S. policy regarding the Islamic State, Earnest said, "The United States recognizes that boots on the ground will be required to stabilize the situation inside of Syria and ultimately to root out ISIL. The President has made clear that those will not be U.S. boots on the ground."
This post was updated to include comments from White House press secretary Josh Earnest.