US Marines arrive in Syria to join fight against Islamic State
A couple of hundred US Marines have deployed into Syria with heavy artillery guns, as part of the ongoing preparation for the fight to oust the Islamic State group from its self-declared headquarters of Raqqa, a senior official has said.
The deployment is temporary, but it suggests the White House is leaning towards giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the IS fight.
Military commanders frustrated by what they considered micromanagement under the previous administration have argued for greater freedom to make daily decisions on how best to fight the enemy.
The Marines moving into Syria are pre-positioning howitzers to be ready to assist local Syrian forces, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition, the US is preparing to send hundreds of troops to Kuwait in order to be ready to join the IS fight if they are needed, the official said. The number would be fewer than 1,000.
The latest troop movements come on the heels of the recent temporary deployment of some dozens of Army forces to the outskirts of Manbij, Syria, in what the Pentagon called a "reassure and deter" mission. Flying American flags and moving in large, heavily armoured vehicles, the troops were there to keep a lid on tensions in the area, the Pentagon said.
It appeared the forces were largely there to ensure that Turkish fighters and Syrian opposition groups focused on battling IS rather than each other.
Under the existing limits put in place by the Obama administration, the military can have up to 503 US forces in Syria. But temporary personnel do not count against the cap.
Pentagon leaders sent a new plan to defeat IS to the White House late last month. It outlined a strategy that would increase the number of US troops in Syria in order to better advise and enable the US-backed Syrian fighters who will take on the battle for Raqqa.
The military has mapped out a series of options for the Syria fight, including increased artillery support, more Apache helicopters and a more robust training campaign.
US officials say the battle for Raqqa will look much like the fight in neighbouring Iraq, where local forces are in a fierce battle to retake the northern city of Mosul from IS. As troops were preparing to move into Mosul, the US set up bases outside the city to use as logistical hubs and as locations for heavy artillery.
The moves to pre-position US troops closer to the fight, so they can be tapped as needed, are the kinds of decisions that military commanders say they need to be able to make more quickly, without going to the White House every time for approval.