WASHINGTON - US President Obama will deploy a small number of American Special Operations forces to Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria to help local forces fight the Islamic State, the White House announced on Friday.

The group of fewer than 50 troops will “help coordinate local ground forces and coalition efforts” to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces, a senior administration official said.

The move would put US boots on the ground in Syria for the first time since that country’s civil war began.

The US is also deploying A-10s and F-15s to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and is working with Iraq to create a special forces task force to “enhance our ability to target ISIL leaders and networks,” the official said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

The decision comes as the administration ramps up its military campaign against ISIS, which controls large parts of both the countries.

Although the US has already been advising local forces in Iraq, this would mark a new mission in Syria, where the US has been conducting airstrikes and equipping moderate Syrian rebels. 

“At the President’s direction, the administration has been looking at ways to intensify our counter-ISIL campaign,” an administration official said.

“In that effort, we have been focused on intensifying elements of our strategy that have been working, while also moving away from elements of our approach that have proven less effective.” 

The official said Secretary of State John Kerry is also increasing diplomatic efforts to pursue a political resolution. 

“Our intensified counter-ISIL campaign will support those efforts by continuing to strengthen Opposition partners on the ground, while also coordinating the efforts of our coalition partners,” he said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Republican,  said that the “more serious effort” against ISIS was overdue, but questioned the effectiveness of the administration’s plan.

“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,” he said in a statement. 

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, struck a similar note.

“[It’s] time for the administration to propose a unified strategy that addresses the intertwined challenges posed by ISIL and President (Bashar) Assad,” he said.

Last week, US special operations forces participated in a raid in Iraq with Kurdish Peshmerga forces to rescue Iraqi hostages. An Army Delta Force commando was killed in the mission. 

Earlier this week, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told members of Congress that the US expects to do more raids — either partnered or unilaterally, and defence officials indicated they would be increased in both Iraq and Syria.

A progressive groups slammed the decision as a “broken promise” by the President.

“Putting boots on the ground in Syria is both a broken promise by the President and bad policy,” said Zack Malitz, campaign manager at CREDO Action. 

“In 2013 President Obama stated unequivocally that he would ‘not put American boots on the ground in Syria,’” Malitz continued. “By breaking that promise today, President Obama is putting American lives at risk and drawing the United States further into a conflict that cannot be resolved militarily.”

When he announced military action in Syria in 2013, Obama pledged US ground forces would not be deployed there.

“I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria,” he said.

“I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.”

ATTACKS ON SYRIA REBEL STRONGHOLDS KILL 91

At least 91 people, including 17 children, were killed on Friday in attacks on opposition strongholds in the north and outside Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The deaths came as top diplomats from 17 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, met for the first time in Vienna hoping to find a political solution to the conflict. Of the 91, at least 59 died in government attacks on Douma, a town on the eastern edges of the capital. “The toll has risen to 57 people, including five children and two women” when more than a dozen regime rockets struck the town, the monitoring group said.

Another two people were killed in government air raids on Duma later Friday, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said. Douma is in Eastern Ghouta, the largest opposition stronghold in Damascus province. Elsewhere, 32 civilians, among them 12 children, were killed on Friday afternoon in air strikes on opposition-held areas of Syria’s second city Aleppo, the Observatory said.

The Britain-based monitor said the strikes were believed to have been carried out by regime or Russian warplanes. It said 10 were killed in the Fardous neighbourhood, and two children were killed in the Salaheddin district. The raids killed another 20 civilians — half of them children — in Maghayir, the Observatory reported, adding that dozens were wounded or missing.

More than 250,000 people have been killed since Syria’s war began in March 2011. Both the government and opposition forces have been condemned by rights groups for firing indiscriminately on civilian areas. The opposition National Coalition said those killed in Douma on Friday morning had been struck by Russian air raids.

“The National Coalition holds Russia, Iran, and the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad responsible for the deaths of these civilians,” a coalition official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said the attacks “indicated an attempt to undermine the efforts to stop the violence” during the Vienna meeting. Douma has been a frequent target of government attacks.

“Douma is one of the areas in Syria where there are the highest number of deaths since the beginning of the war,” Abdel Rahman said. Government forces regularly target it with rocket fire, shelling and air raids, and opposition groups in Douma also launch rockets into the capital. In August, 117 people were killed in a single day of air strikes in the town, causing a global outcry.