About 500 U.S. forces will operate close to the front lines, as ISIS fights to retain control of the last major city under its influence.
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
More U.S. troops are heading for Syria in advance of what is expected to be a hard fight for the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa.
The announcement of the deployment of 200 more special operations forces, made Saturday by Defense Secretary Ash Carter while traveling in Bahrain, is another uptick in the growing American presence in both Syria and Iraq, where local forces — backed by U.S. and coalition air power — have steadily pushed the Islamic State into smaller pockets of control over the past year. There are currently about 300 American special operations forces in Syria.
“These uniquely skilled operators will … continue organizing, training, equipping, and otherwise enabling capable, motivated, local forces to take the fight to ISIL,” Carter said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
A senior defense official who requested anonymity told reporters Saturday that the increase “is tied to the growing number of local forces now willing to participate in this fight.” That’s a reference to American efforts to find more Arab forces to hold Raqqa and the surrounding areas, allowing Kurdish fighters to pull back, something that would reduce tensions with local Arab populations.
The deployment will give the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump more options for how to run the U.S. war in Syria. Trump has promised to destroy the Islamic State while also insisting that Washington should get out of the business of nation building. He has repeatedly said he would look for ways to work with Russia in Syria to fight the Islamic State, despite long-term reluctance in the Defense Department for forging any such alliance with Moscow.
The operators will embed with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces that has been steadily pushing on Raqqa for weeks. The SDF said on Thursday that it was kicking off an operation to take the Tabqa dam, about 30 miles west of the city.
Since October 2015, when the Pentagon announced the first group of 50 special operators was heading to Syria, defense officials have insisted that they are not in combat, although they are embedded with SDF units doing the fighting. The “train, advise, and assist” mission has often slipped into combat for American forces however, as the fluid nature of the fight makes front lines difficult to discern.
The American announcement comes just days after Turkey reportedly sent 300 commandos to northern Syria to assist the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels who are moving south toward the Islamic State-held city of Bab. American commandos had initially moved into Syria with the FSA in August, but last month U.S. military officials said the troops had been withdrawn, and U.S. air support suspended, partially due to worries that the militia would set its sights on the rival SDF. Ankara has pledged to fight to ensure the Kurdish Peshmerga stay away from Turkey’s borders.
The FSA fighters have been regularly targeted by Russian airstrikes, a senior defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy.
Although no U.S. troops have been killed in Syria since the first 50 entered in October 2015, the American fight against the Islamic State and the Taliban in Afghanistan continues to take its toll.
Last October, Navy SEAL Jason Finan was killed near Mosul, Iraq, when a roadside bomb exploded. Finan had been serving as an advisor to Iraqi security forces fighting the Islamic State. Fellow Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed near Mosul in May, when Islamic State fighters attacked the Peshmerga forces he was advising.
In Afghanistan, U.S. Army Special Forces soldier Staff Sgt. Adam Thomas was killed fighting the Islamic State in October, and last month two more Green Berets were killed fighting the Taliban in Kunduz. They were Capt. Andrew Byers and Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Gloyer. All three soldiers were assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group.
Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images