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White House Won't Call New Syria Operations 'Combat'

Earnest answers questions about Syria. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A White House briefing Friday turned into a debate about the definition of combat, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest criticized Congress for taking too many days off while also opting against legally authorizing operations against the Islamic State group, known as ISIS or ISIL.  

Reporters pressed Earnest, shortly after the White House announced it would send “less than 50” U.S. special operations forces to Syria, about whether being close to the fighting there — and, if necessary, participants in it — constitutes combat.  

On the Hill, Republican hawks quickly applauded the administration's announcement. And new Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said the move should be accompanied by "a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL."  

"Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region," Ryan said. "I look forward to reviewing the details of this announcement."  

Time and again, Earnest refused to brand what those forces would be doing with the combat tag. He said the Americans would be offering “advice," “assistance” and “training” to “moderate” forces in the Middle Eastern country who are fighting the Islamic State.  

When reporters cited President Barack Obama’s statements about never sending U.S. combat forces to Syria, he batted them away.  

Earnest jousted with reporters about Obama's past comments, contending the president has always been referring to a large-scale operation like the one in Iraq that began in 2003. He described the coming deployment and mission in Syria as small.  

“They are not being deployed to Syria with a combat mission,” he said. “The are being deployed to Syria with a train and assist mission.”  

Earlier this month, Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was killed during a raid to free hostages held by the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Several days later, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter used the “c” word, which the White House clearly wants to stay away from.  

"Of course he died in combat,” Carter said during a recent Pentagon briefing. “That's what happened.”  

Related: Senate Clears NDAA With Veto-Proof Majority Obama Says Syria Critics Offering 'Half-Baked' 'Mumbo-Jumbo'  See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.