WASHINGTON — The United States is sending an additional 400 troops toSyria to help prepare for the looming fight for Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, American officials said on Thursday.
The increase, which includes a team of Army Rangers and a Marine artillery unit that have already arrived in Syria, represents a near-doubling of the number of American troops there.
The United States military has declined to say how many troops it has deployed in Syria. The formal troop cap is 503, but commanders have the authority to temporarily exceed that limit.
The Rangers’ presence became apparent last weekend when they were seen driving around the northern Syrian town of Manbij in Stryker vehicles and armored Humvees. The Washington Post earlier reported the deployment of the Marine artillery battery.
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“We are preparing logistical and fire support to enable a successful assault on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS,” said Col. John L. Dorrian, a spokesman for the American-led command that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“The exact numbers and locations of these forces are sensitive in order to protect our forces, but there will be approximately an additional 400 enabling forces deployed for a temporary period to enable our Syrian partnered forces to defeat ISIS in Raqqa,” Colonel Dorrian added.
The military strategy that is emerging in Syria parallels the approach that the United States has taken in Mosul, Iraq, and largely reflects the assumptions that guided the planning during the Obama administration.
In Mosul, the Americans and their allies have provided the air power, rocket fire, artillery and advisers, enabling Iraqi forces to move forward in their push to take the city’s western half.
Similarly, in the case of Raqqa, the idea is that Syrian forces will do most of the ground fighting but that Americans will assist them with advisers and firepower.
The United States is already carrying out airstrikes in Syria and has deployed Himars surface-to-surface rockets in the northern part of the country. Before he left office, President Barack Obama approved the use of a small number of Apache attack helicopters, and they are expected to be part of the Raqqa operation, as well.
Now, Marine artillery is being added, along with logistical support and training and protection in dealing with improvised explosive devises.
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the United States Central Command, told reporters on Thursday that he was open to asking for more conventional military units if they are needed.
“I feel very comfortable with mixing Special Operations forces with conventional forces,” General Votel said. “That is the way we fight.”
One big hole in the strategy concerns which fighters will actually seize Raqqa. American commanders favor a mixed force of Syrian Arabs and the Kurdish Y.P.G. militia. But Turkey objects to arming the Kurds, a group it has denounced as terrorists.
The American military hopes it can mollify the Turks by making sure that the majority of the force that takes the city is Arab, and making clear that only local fighters will occupy the city after the Islamic State is driven out.
But Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who recently visited Syria and Turkey, questioned whether these assurances would be enough to ease the concerns of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. His role is critical because he has allowed American warplanes to operate from the Turkish airfield at Incirlik and has sent Turkish troops into Syria.
“I’m not sure there’s an understanding of how seriously Erdogan views this issue,” Mr. McCain said in a Thursday hearing with General Votel.
“I think there’s a possibility of an impending conflict between Turkey and the Kurds,” Mr. McCain said.
Without providing details, General Votel responded, “We are trying to take actions to prevent that from occurring.”
Turning to other regions, General Votel said he agreed the Afghan conflict was stalemated and supported the appeal from the American commander in Afghanistan for additional troops.
Regarding Yemen, General Votel said that he bore full responsibility for a January raid that was mounted to acquire intelligence about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. One American commando was killed, and civilians perished in the cross-fire.
Mr. Trump has unwaveringly defended the value of the raid, but also told a Fox News interviewer that the operation was something the commanders “wanted to do.”
Mr. McCain said that while the heroism of the Special Operations forces could not be challenged, the operation raised questions, including why the mission continued after encountering heavy fire and why the commandos had failed to capture any Al Qaeda operatives.
The American people, Mr. McCain said, need to be told the truth.
General Votel said that four to 12 civilian casualties resulted from the operation, providing lower casualty estimates than some analysts. After the hearing, General Votel acknowledged that United States commandos had hoped to capture some Al Qaeda operatives so it could interrogate them about the group’s operations.
“We were trying to develop our understanding of the area and that includes the people as well as other materials,” General Votel said.
Still, he told the lawmakers that he did not see the need for an additional government investigation of the mission.
In Iraq, as the fighting continued in Mosul, suicide bombers struck a village north of Baghdad as a wedding party gathered there, killing at least 26 people and wounding dozens, a government spokesman said on Thursday.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks late Wednesday, but suspicion has fallen on the Islamic State, The Associated Press reported.Read More...
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