The incremental intensification of the American war effort in Iraq and Syria took another step forward Thursday, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed that U.S. commandos are now active in northern Syria. The troops have been meeting with Syrian Arab rebels with whom they hope to forge a partnership in the fight against the Islamic State.
Carter’s comments marked the first official acknowledgement of the evolving mission President Barack Obama announced in October, when he approved the dispatch of up to 50 commandos to Syria to help local forces plan attacks on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The idea was to have American forces embed with rebel groups to call in airstrikes, plan logistics, and gather intelligence.
The confirmation of the Syrian mission comes on the heels of another planned deployment of up to 200 Special Operations forces to Iraq, who defense officials say will launch raids to target ISIS leadership. One official has said that most of those troops won’t engage in combat, however, estimating actual combat forces will only number in the “dozens.”
It’s unclear if the Syrian embedding program has started in earnest, as Carter, speaking with reporters in Erbil, Iraq — the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region — said only that the commandos performed “an exploratory mission” to “identify and link up with local forces, in this case especially Syrian-Arab forces, that were willing to fight ISIL, but needed our help.”
The introductions were facilitated by Syrian Kurdish fighters who have formed an alliance with the Arabs in Syria’s north. By providing equipment, tactical advice, and U.S.-directed airstrikes on Islamic State positions, U.S. officials hope Kurdish and Arab forces will eventually be able to push south to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s seat of power.
Carter said that the initial meetings with the Arabs “bore the fruit that we hoped it would,” and “we have indications that there are more of them, which is what we want as we move further south to Raqqa.”
Washington has already air dropped tons of weapons and ammunition to anti-ISIS forces in northern Syria, with the most recent delivery coming earlier this week.
Speaking at the Pentagon on Monday, Obama gave the first indication that U.S. forces had already entered Syria, saying they “have begun supporting local forces” in cutting off supply lines leading to Raqqa. But Carter’s confirmation represented the most detail yet of how far along U.S. forces are in establishing a foothold in rebel-held areas of the country.
The U.S. defense secretary flew to Erbil from Baghdad earlier in the day, after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected an American offer to send more front-line combat advisors and Apache attack helicopters to assist in the retaking of Ramadi, which fell to ISIS in May. Abadi’s refusal underlined the tension that has emerged between Washington and Baghdad in recent years, partly due to increasing Iranian influence in the country.
Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the American general running the U.S. military effort in Iraq, hinted at the political realities in the capital when he told reporters Thursday that “there are a number of complex relationships that the government of Iraq has to tend to, and we are here in Iraq at the behest of that government.” American leaders have to proceed carefully, he said, and be “attentive to some of the political realities that surround us every single day,” in Iraq.
Kurdistan, by contrast, is a world apart. In Erbil, Carter pledged to send enough weapons, vehicles, radios, and other equipment to outfit two brigades of Kurdish peshmerga fighters. He also said his talks with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani revolved around “the future of the campaign, particularly the role that his forces could play in the encirclement and recapture of Mosul.” The city, Iraq’s second-largest, fell to the Islamic State in June 2014.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army