While the Trump administration waits to decide if it will send 1,000 troops to Kuwait to fight ISIS, overnight the Washington Post reported that the US has sent several hundred Marines to Syria to support an allied local force aiming to capture the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. Defence officials said they would establish an outpost from which they could fire artillery at IS positions some 32km (20 miles) away. US special forces are already on the ground, "advising" the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance according to the BBC.
The defence officials told the Washington Post that the Marines were from the San Diego-based 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and that they had flown to northern Syria via Djibouti and Kuwait. They are to set up an artillery battery that could fire powerful 155mm shells from M777 howitzers, the officials said. Another marine expeditionary unit carried out a similar mission at the start of the Iraqi government's operation to recapture the city of Mosul from IS last year.
Under former President Barack Obama, US special operations forces were deployed to recruit, train and advise the SDF's Arab and Kurdish fighters. However, their numbers were limited to 500.
The Marines' deployment is considered temporary, so it is not affected by the cap. The western alliance is expected to launch an assault on Raqqa in the coming weeks, which virtually assures that hundreds more will be shipped in shortly.
A spokesman for the US-led multinational coalition against IS, Colonel John Dorrian, told Reuters news agency on Thursday that the dozens of Rangers who recently arrived on the outskirts of Manbij, about 110km (68 miles) from Raqqa, were also there "for a temporary period".
Additionally, over the weekend, a separate force of elite US army Rangers was also deployed near a town north-west of Raqqa in heavily armoured vehicles, in an attempt to end clashes between SDF fighters and a Turkish-backed rebel force. Pentagon officials had earlier said the Rangers were taking part in a "reassure and deter" mission following clashes between Turkish-backed Arab rebels and local fighters from the Manbij Military Council, which was set up by the SDF when it captured the town from IS last year.
Last week, after Turkey's president said the rebels aimed to capture Manbij, the council said it had agreed a deal with Russia to hand a string of villages on the frontline over to Syrian government forces in order to protect them. Turkey considers the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia, which dominates the SDF, an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which operates inside Turkey.
Is this a US escalation?
The short answer: yes; the official one: "it is not yet clear", but the deployment comes as President Donald Trump considers a new plan to defeat IS that was submitted by the Pentagon late last month. Reports say the review may lead to an increase in the number of US troops in Syria, but not a dramatic shift in strategy.
The Associated Press news agency reports that Mr Trump wants to give the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the fight against IS. Commanders on the ground were frustrated by what they considered micromanagement by the Obama administration, it adds. As reported last night, the US is also said to be preparing to send up to 1,000 troops to Kuwait to serve as a reserve force that can deployed to fight IS in Syria and Iraq if necessary.
In total, about 6,000 US troops are in the countries, but largely in advisory roles.
Why Is Raqqa so important?
As the WSJ writes overnight, the ongoing "three-way contest" for Raqqa will shape the mideast. Here are some details:
As the Syrian conflict enters its sixth year, the outcome of the scramble for Islamic State’s de facto capital will shape the balance of power in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
With the self-styled caliphate rapidly shrinking in Iraq after the loss of much of Mosul, the fall of Raqqa and Islamic State’s remaining territories in Syria has become just a matter of time. The contest over who gets these spoils, however, threatens to unleash a new spiral of violence that could draw regional and global powers deeper into the conflict.
The three forces aiming for Raqqa—Sunni Arab rebels, the Syrian regime and Kurdish-led militias—all view control over that area as giving them crucial leverage in any political settlement of the war.
The complicated dynamic is further muddled by the strategic calculations of their main sponsors, whose own interests extend far beyond the power struggle inside Syria.
Turkey, the main supporter of the rebel Free Syrian Army and allied Sunni Arab militias, is most interested in weakening the main Syrian Kurdish political faction, which is affiliated with the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK is waging a violent campaign inside Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by Washington and Ankara alike.
For the Syrian regime’s main backer Russia, which has developed ties with the Syrian Kurds and, of late, with some Sunni Arab rebels, the main goal is to capitalize on its costly investment in Syria and to cement the achievements of its military campaign through a political deal.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is still reviewing its Syria policy. Its actions, for now, remain driven almost exclusively by the military priorities in the battle against Islamic State, with limited attention to America’s other interests and alliances in the region.