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How Obama got to boots on the ground in Syria
01:48 - Source: CNN

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As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to wrap up the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Now, he is once again, albeit reluctantly, deepening U.S. military involvement in the Middle East

Washington CNN  — 

A president elected to end wars has instead opened a new front.

As a candidate, Barack Obama pledged to wrap up the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring American troops home. Now, he is once again, albeit reluctantly, deepening U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

The White House announced Friday that Obama approved the deployment of nearly 50 Special Operations forces to Syria, two years after he addressed the American public and said emphatically: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

His decision to change course seemed an admission that his studious efforts to take a more hands-off approach to Syria was no longer an option as a U.S.-led air campaign wasn’t sufficient to stop ISIS and Russia has sought to fill the vacuum opened in part by the United States.

As much as Obama has sought a legacy as a president who concludes wars, his decision Friday is a sign that he was ultimately more concerned about the lasting impact of not more aggressively taking on ISIS – but not necessarily enthusiastic that he now stands to be remembered as a president who expanded America’s military presence to a new Middle Eastern country.

White House downplays shift in strategy

Obama did not appear publicly to announce this change of heart on Friday, which some read as a sign of ambivalence at the course he’s laid out. And the spokesman to whom he left the job of explaining the new approach would not concede that it represented a different course.

“The fact is, our strategy in Syria hasn’t changed,” Earnest told reporters. “The core of our military strategy inside of Syria is to build up the capacity of local forces. To take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country … This is an intensification of a strategy that the President announced more than a year ago.”

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And Earnest once again emphasized that the U.S. forces headed for Syria “do not have a combat mission,” though the troops may be authorized to conduct raids on the ground as they have covertly done in the past.

“I don’t think Obama wants to be involved in a civil war,” said Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria. “I’m sure he’s not happy about deepening American military involvement.”

David Schenker, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy and a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, agreed.

“This is not something (Obama) wanted to do, and I think he would like to make sure this doesn’t go on and increase in number or scope,” he said.

And he pushed back on Earnest’s characterization that the anti-ISIS campaign hadn’t changed, noting that it’s the first time U.S. troops will be stationed in harm’s way inside Syria.

“I think it’s a pretty big shift. At the most basic level it’s a fundamental shift away from the clear resistance to putting any boots on the ground really anywhere,” Schenker said.

He described Obama as “concerned about both the perception of putting U.S. troops in harm’s way, but also concerned about the slippery slope that even a minimal deployment could serve as a springboard to help drag Washington further into … a quagmire.”

In fact, that’s the word Obama used as a warning to Russia after it too began a bombing campaign in Syria assisted by its own troops on the ground. Moscow has claimed that it is also trying to root out ISIS, but the Pentagon believes the locations of the strikes make clear that the true purpose is to bolster close ally President Bashar al-Assad, increasingly under threat from rebel forces.

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work” Obama said at a news conference earlier this month.

One of the challenges Obama will face is having U.S. ground troops in a country where Russian planes are carrying out bombing missions, though for now they are operating in separate regions.

“I think that more of this is driven by Russia,” Schencker said. “If we want to protect what’s left of the moderate Syrian rebels, I think we’re sending a signal to the Russians that they risk hitting U.S. troops on the ground.”

Critics of Obama maintain that he himself created this opening for Russia because he failed to assert the U.S. role in Syria. They make a similar argument for ISIS, which has exploited the vacuum created by Assad’s waning power and the civil war, as well as taken advantage of a weak Iraq state following the withdrawal of American troops there in 2011.

Friday’s half-hearted announcement, they charge, won’t be enough to turn the tide.

“These steps may prove to be too little too late,” said House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican.

Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, like Thornberry, wants to see a stepped-up U.S. effort to fight ISIS but didn’t think the new plan cut it.

RELATED: Dems, GOPers knock Obama’s plan for troops in Syria

“Part of strategy is matching means to your goals,” Cotton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “The President has the right goal, and he has since last year when he finally realized the Islamic State is not the JV team. But he’s consistently not given the means needed to achieve the goal of destroying the Islamic State.”

The criticism of Obama could well increase if there are American casualties in Syria. He has placed a high priority on minimizing risk to American service members – relying on drones and air power wherever possible.

‘A dangerous place on the globe’

Earnest acknowledged the risks Friday.

“This is a dangerous place on the globe and they are at risk, and there’s no denying that,” Earnest told reporters Friday.

But the risk will be worth it, according to several experts who spoke with CNN.

The forces will not only be in position to train and advise local forces as they prepare operations against ISIS but will also be able to better inform the U.S. military brass in Washington as to where it should focus its resources and which groups and leaders it should trust.

“They will be kind of a force multiplier. It’s high-risk business, but we really cannot see what is going on on the ground by being in the air. We have to have people on the ground,” said Christopher Hill, who served as Obama’s first ambassador to Iraq.

While some within his own party took issue with his decision to send Americans into harms way, his slow, deliberative process in making the call and the relatively modest numbers involved could inoculate him from some of the harshest criticism on this score.

And Obama himself has many times reiterated the widely held view that there are no good options when it comes to Syria.

Ultimately, though, how Obama’s decision to send U.S. troops to Syria will be determined by what happens on the ground over the remaining months of his presidency.

“This is a situation which is rife with the risk of unintended consequences,” said Ford.