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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will deploy dozens of special operations troops to northern Syria from next month to advise opposition forces in their fight against Islamic State, a major policy shift for President Barack Obama and a step he has long resisted to avoid getting dragged into another war in the Middle East.
The planned deployment, along with the U.S. decision this week to include Iran in diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, represents the biggest change in the United States' Syria policy since it began a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets there in September 2014.
Announcing the measure on Friday, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to "train, advise and assist" and would number fewer than 50. Spokesman Josh Earnest declined to give details about their exact role.
The decision by Obama, deeply averse to committing troops to unpopular wars in the Middle East, would mark the first sustained U.S. troop presence in Syria and raise the risk of American casualties, although U.S. officials stressed the forces were not meant to engage in front-line combat.
"This is a dangerous place on the globe and they are at risk, and there's no denying that," said Earnest, who repeatedly rejected the idea that the deployment would constitute a ground combat mission, which Obama has long rejected as a solution in Syria.
Earnest said the new mission in Syria was open ended and did not rule out the possibility of sending additional special forces troops into Iraq. Obama spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Friday about the fight against Islamic State, Earnest said.
The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up America's effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.
The planned deployment adds to an increasingly volatile conflict in Syria, where Russia and Iran have increased up their military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in the four-and-a-half year civil war.
Russia said when it began air strikes last month that it would also target the Islamic State militant group, but its planes have hit other rebel groups opposed to Assad, including groups backed by Washington.
The decision to send U.S. special forces to Syria will put U.S. forces "in harm's way," U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday, adding he did not rule out the possibility of further special forces deployments to Syria.
This month a U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq participating in a Kurdish-led mission to rescue Islamic State hostages.
Some in Congress applauded the planned deployment, although Republican critics described it as overdue and unlikely to change the course of the war. Senator John McCain, who has long assailed Obama's foreign policy, said it amounted to "grudging incrementalism" that was insufficient to resolve the conlict.
Many Republicans, including leading candidates in the 2016 presidential race, have called for a more interventionist Middle East policy, slamming Obama for his nuclear deal with Iran and for not being tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting the Syria mission to air strikes against Islamic State. Before last year, Obama had ruled out an American presence on the ground in Syria. Over the past year, however, he has emphasized that he would not send U.S. "combat" troops there.
The new U.S. strategy against Islamic State in Syria will be accompanied by a new special operations force in Erbil in northern Iraq, "intensified" cooperation with Iraqis in retaking the city of Ramadi and expanded security assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, a senior congressional source said.
The forces in Syria would be stationed in rebel-held territory, coordinate air drops to rebels and resupplying those forces as they move toward Raqqa, which is in the north of the country and is the declared capital of Islamic State, U.S. officials told Reuters. They could also help coordinate air strikes from the ground, the officials said.
To further counter Islamic State, Obama has also authorized deploying A-10s and F-15 aircraft to Incirlik air
base in Turkey.
The United States had already deployed about a dozen A-10 aircraft to Incirlik in the past couple of weeks and expects to send an additional dozen or so F-15 fighter jets there, as part of an effort to "thicken" air operations in northern Syria, a senior U.S. defense official said.
"That means we want a greater density of planes striking, a greater density of intelligence assets developing targets," the official said.
Friday's move reflects a wider strategy of strengthening rebels Washington sees as moderate even as it intensifies its efforts to find a diplomatic solution to end to the Syrian civil war in which at least 200,000 people have died.
The news came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting at Syrian peace talks in Vienna. He said that the timing of the announcement was a coincidence and that peace moves must continue.
The talks include the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, which support Assad, and nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are adamantly opposed to his remaining in power after a civil war that has driven millions abroad as refugees and displaced millions more inside the country.
The United States is helping thousands of Syrian rebel fighters as they try to encircle Raqqa and cut that city off from Iraq's Mosul, which the group also controls, U.S. officials say.
The most effective U.S. allies in northern Syria are Kurdish forces, who captured a swathe of territory from Islamic State along the border with Turkey over the past year with the aid of U.S. air strikes. But Washington has been cautious about publicly committing to help the Syrian Kurds, who are mistrusted by U.S. NATO ally Turkey.
The senior U.S. defense official said Washington had no intention for now of airdropping weapons to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.
"I don't rule it out in the future but...nothing would be done without the close coordination of the government of Turkey," the official said.
Although the U.S. forces would help local Syrian fighters better communicate targets for U.S. airstrikes, the U.S. forces themselves were not going to call in the strikes, the official said.
Additional reporting by Julia Edwards, Roberta Rampton, Mark Hosenball and Yeganeh Torbati; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Frances Kerry and Mary Milliken