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US Sends More Troops to Syria

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

March 12, 2017

Armed men identified by Syrian Democratic forces as US special operations forces are seen in the village of Fatisah in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Fears that US could get caught in Syria

Several hundred US Marines and Army Rangers have deployed to Syria to pre-position howitzers to be ready to assist local Syrian forces in the fight to oust Islamic State from the city of Raqqa. The 400 marines join about 500 US troops already there, according to Pentagon officials, and the US is also preparing to send up to 1000 troops to Kuwait if needed.

Coalition spokesman US Air Force Col. John Dorrian said the additional US forces would not have a frontline role and would be working with local partners in Syria – the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition, both rebel groups that are fighting Islamic State.

The latest US troop movements come as Syrians mark the sixth anniversary of the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Until now, the US has stayed out of the conflict. But President Donald Trump has said he wants to do more to defeat Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is not the only threat from radical Islamic terrorism that the United States faces, but it is among the most vicious and aggressive,” Trump wrote. “It is also attempting to create its own state, which ISIS claims as a ‘caliphate.’ But there can be no accommodation or negotiation with it. For those reasons I am directing my Administration to develop a comprehensive plan to defeat ISIS.”

US Military commanders have said they would like greater freedom to make decisions on the ground on how best to fight ISIS. Proponents of the deployment say it will allow US commanders on the ground with greater flexibility to quickly respond to unforeseen challenges on the ground.

But others warn that the US might encounter difficulties in Syria.

“It’s taking a risk because it’s always easier to get in than to get out,” Uzi Dayan, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council told The Media Line. “You have to be very careful not to clash with the Russians on one side and the Turks on the other.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who contrary to all expectations, remains firmly in power after six years of fighting said that the US troops had come “without invitation” and called them “invaders,” adding in an interview to Chinese TV, “We don’t think this is going to help.”

Assad also said that the Russian-backed Syrian army was “very close” to Raqqa, which remains controlled by Islamic State. Along with Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa is the last place where Islamic State still controls territory in Syria and Iraq. Assad said that “in theory” he is willing to cooperate with President Trump in the fight against ISIS but that very little had happened so far. He dismissed the US-backed campaign against ISIS as “only a few raids” and said a more comprehensive effort is needed.

The new US policy is also an attempt to boost America’s reputation in the region, say Israeli analysts, after the US reputation suffered a blow over the past few years. For example, President Obama had said that chemical weapons use by troops loyal to Assad would be a “red line” that the US would not accept. Yet despite repeated instances when Assad used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, the US did not intervene.

“Obama gave the US the bad name of a state that does not stand behind its commitments,” Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Bar Ilan University with a long past in Israeli military intelligence, told The Media Line. “If they want to have any influence in the Middle East, Trump has to regain this credibility.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the US hopes to assist, is a mostly-Kurdish militia. Cooperating with the Kurds could cause tensions between the US and Turkey as well. Turkey says the SDF has ties with the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party, which they see as a terrorist organization.

Yet, Israeli analysts say, there are certain tasks that small groups of elite US soldiers could be successful at fulfilling.

“Special forces could do some reconnaissance and help coordinate an air to ground attack,” Uzi Dayan said. “In other places it is just logistics like running field hospitals, pre-positioning ammunition, or helping to maintain the ammunition.”

He said that in a situation like the fight for Raqqa, where so many different groups are involved, good communications is essential. At the same time, he said that Israel had developed an ethos in which “we don’t ask somebody else to fight for us, and we don’t want our soldiers to fight elsewhere.”

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