WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats on Friday criticized President Barack Obama's decision to dispatch a small band of U.S. special operations forces to northern Syria to help local fighters battle the Islamic State, saying they feared "mission creep" from a president who promised to end American involvement in two wars.
Democrats complained the move was being made without a clear U.S. strategy in Syria, torn asunder by years of civil war. They also said the move makes it essential that Congress debate and vote on a new authorization for the use of military force. Obama is relying on war powers given to President George W. Bush after 9/11.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said sending American special forces into Syria represents a major shift in policy that puts the United States on a "potentially dangerous downward slope into a civil war with no end in sight."
Murphy and other Democrats said the deployment, while small, risks drawing U.S. forces into combat missions and will inevitably increase pressure for the United States to enter the war against Syria President Bashar Assad.
They say it also runs counter to Obama's address to the nation on Sept. 10, 2013, when he said: "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted the fewer than 50 troops will not be on a "combat mission." He said the U.S. special operations forces would train, advise and assist local forces as part of the stepped-up U.S. effort against IS.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called the deployment a "strategic mistake."
It "marks a major shift in U.S. policy — a shift that is occurring without congressional debate, is unlikely to succeed in achieving our objective of defeating IS and instead threatens to embroil the United States in Syria's civil war," Schatz said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., expressed his opposition in a letter to Obama. "The United States cannot and should not be on the front lines in Syria," Heinrich wrote. He said the announcement puts America closer to the "front lines of a military conflict that has yet to be explicitly authorized by Congress."
"This series of escalations is the classic example of mission creep," Heinrich said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said that about 15 months ago Obama announced two narrowly focused operations to protect American personnel in Irbil in northern Iraq and a humanitarian effort to save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped by IS on Mount Sinjar. Since then, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has risen to an estimated 3,400 and the U.S. has conducted about 7,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria at a cost of more than $4.7 billion.
"We are now one year, two months and 23 days into an unauthorized and executive war," Kaine said. "It is time for Congress to do its most solemn job — to debate and declare war. It is also time for the administration to detail to the America people a comprehensive strategy to bring both the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, which are metastasizing around the globe, to a peaceful end."
Republicans on Capitol Hill weren't happy either, but for different reasons.
While Democrats worried about mission creep, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the decision was "another insufficient step in the Obama administration's policy of gradual escalation."
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, said a more intensive effort against IS in Syria is overdue, but the small deployment might prove to be too little, too late. "I do not see a strategy for success, rather it seems the administration is trying to avoid a disaster while the president runs out the clock" on his presidency, he said.