US plans for Syria include another 1,000 troops: US official
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
AFP photoUp to 1,000 additional U.S. troops could be deployed to northern Syria under provisional plans drawn up by the Pentagon, a U.S. defense official said on March 16.
The plans, which still need to be approved by U.S. President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, would mark a significant uptick in U.S. boots on the ground in Syria as part of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Currently, the troop level is capped at 500 in Syria, but that number has become increasingly meaningless as commanders send in extra “temporary” forces as needed – such as last week’s deployment of a Marine artillery battery near Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIL in Syria.
The actual number of American troops in the war-torn country is likely now between 800 and 900, and a U.S. defense official said the new plans would allow for up to 1,000 more.
“That’s one of the proposals that’s on the table for discussion,” the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The possible deployment was first reported by the Washington Post, which said the extra forces would come from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
The official said the troops would not be in direct combat, but rather serve in support roles for any additional capabilities the military requires in northern Syria, where a U.S.-led coalition is training and backing a local Kurdish-Arab alliance to fight ISIL.
Syrian force fighting for Raqqa ‘mainly Arab’
U.S. military spokesman Col. John Dorrian told reporters on March 15 that the U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance leading the offensive to surround and recapture Raqqa now comprises mainly Arab fighters, adding that Kurdish fighters are expected to be involved “at some level.”
The development is significant because the United States has been trying to bolster the Arab part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a bid to placate Turkey, which views the Kurdish component, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), as terrorists.
The SDF since last fall has been ramping up an offensive to recapture Raqqa.
“About 75 percent of that force that is now isolating Raqqa is Syrian Arab, and this is a reflection that’s demographically fairly consistent with what you would find in that area,” Dorrian said, according to AFP.
Still, he said he expected Kurdish fighters to be involved in liberating Raqqa “at some level.”
Turkish forces are operating in northern Syria and have joined the anti-ISIL fight, but are also working to keep the Kurdish fighters in check.
Dorrian said it is possible Turkish forces may play a role in Raqqa.
“We haven’t come to an agreement about what that role will be or if there will be one, but we talk to Turkey... every day,” he said.
Russian, US forces eyeball each other in Manbij
Dorrian also said American and Russian troops were now both present in the northern Syrian city of Manbij and could clearly see each other in the former ISIL stronghold.
The unlikely prospect of U.S. and Russian armored vehicles rumbling down the same streets is another bizarre development in Syria’s tangled conflict that has raged for six years.
“They can observe each other’s movements,” Dorrian said. “They can see each other. They are not talking to each other, and they are not hanging out together.”
A few dozen Army Ranger special operations forces earlier this month entered Manbij on a “reassurance and deterrence” operation in which the normally low-profile troops drove American flag-flying convoys through the city.
Their presence creates a buffer of sorts between Syrian Kurdish forces and Turkish troops eyeing the city, and the Pentagon has said it wants all parties to focus on fighting ISIL jihadists in the region – and not each other.
Russian mine-clearing team arrives in Syria’s Palmyra
Meanwhile, a demining team from Moscow arrived in Syria’s Palmyra to help clear the historical city of mines, the Russian Defense Ministry said March 16.
More than 150 specialists from the International Mine Action Center and a unit with mine detection dogs will be involved in the mine-clearing operation, the statement said.
“Moreover, the Russian servicemen will test prospective samples of explosive searching and detection equipment as well as personnel protection uniform,” it added.
Syrian regime said on March 2 that it had recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIL with the help of Russian air units and Iranian groups on the ground.