BEIRUT – The US-led coalition against Islamic State said on Thursday additional US forces had been deployed to Syria to accelerate the defeat of Islamic State in its Syrian base of operations at Raqqa city.
Confirming media reports, coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said the additional forces would be working with local partners in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition – and would not have a front-line role.
The SDF includes the Kurdish YPG militia.
The additional forces that had arrived in “the last few days” comprised a Marines artillery unit and Army Rangers.
Pentagon official said that the United States Marine Corps has deployed one of its artillery batteries to Syria to join the fight against the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa, the capital of their so-called caliphate.
Under President Obama’s orders, the US only had roughly 500 special operations troops whose tasks were to assist and train the SDF fighters.
Earlier this week, the Department of Defence disclosed that elements of the US army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, equipped with Stryker armoured vehicles, was sent to the Syrian City of Manbij, to prevent Syrian government troops and other factions from engaging in a fight for the former Islamic State bastion.
The artillery unit is from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is equipped with highly potent 155-mm M777 Howitzers. Their task is to perform fire-support missions for the US-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) composed of Syrian and Kurdish fighters, in offensive operations on Raqqa. Local security for the battery will be handled by attached marine infantry units, the official said.
The deployment indicates a major move for conventional US forces in Syria.
“We are talking about an additional 400 or so forces in total, and they will be there for a temporary period,” Dorrian said by telephone. The deployment was on top of an existing 500 already in Syria, he said.
The SDF is the main US partner in the war against Islamic State in Syria. Since November it has been working with the US-led coalition to encircle Raqqa.
President Trump’s administration is inviting a 68-nation coalition fighting Islamic State to meet in Washington later this month to plan their next moves as the group loses ground in its former strongholds in Iraq and Syria, according to two administration officials.
Foreign ministers from the coalition, as well as representatives of international organizations, are expected to meet March 22-23 to plan strategy for countering the terror group, said the officials, who requested anonymity because the plans aren’t yet public.
The summit, which will be led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is a ministerial-level gathering of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, a group begun by former President Barack Obama that is committed to eliminating the threat from the terror organisation, the officials said.
This week, the SDF cut the road between Raqqa and the jihadists’ stronghold of Deir al-Zor province – the last main road out of the city.
Dorrian said the effort to isolate Raqqa was “going very very well” and could be completed in a few weeks. “Then the decision to move in can be made,” he said.
The additional forces aimed to “provide more artillery and to expedite the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa”, he said.
“We have had what I would describe as a pretty relentless air campaign to destroy enemy capabilities and to kill enemy fighters in that area already. That is something that we are going to continue and intensify with this new capability.”
Dorrian said the Army Rangers were on a different mission to the Marines in a previously announced deployment near the city of Manbij to “create some reassurance” for US-allied Turkey and US partners in Syria – a reference to the SDF.
Turkey views YPG as a threat to its national security and says that the Kurdish militia maintains a presence in Manbij. The YPG denies this. Fearing deepening Kurdish influence in northern Syria, Turkey has been pressing Washington for a role in the final assault on Raqqa.
Dorrian said a possible role for Turkey “remains a point of discussion at military leadership and diplomatic levels”.
“We have always said we are open to a role for Turkey in the liberation of Raqqa and will continue that discussion to whatever logical end there is.”
By Tom Perry | Reuters
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