Pen­tagon makes plans for 1,000 troops in Syria

The de­ploy­ment would po­ten­tially dou­ble U.S. forces in Syria.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Thomas Gib­bons-Neff

U.S. sol­diers would de­ploy in the north in ad­vance of an of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

The U.S. mil­i­tary has drawn up early plans that would de­ploy up to 1,000 more troops into north­ern Syria in the com­ing weeks, ex­pand­ing the Amer­i­can pres­ence in the coun­try ahead of the of­fen­sive to cap­ture the Is­lamic State’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa, ac­cord­ing to U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

The de­ploy­ment, if ap­proved by De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, would po­ten­tially dou­ble the num­ber of U.S. forces in Syria and in­crease the po­ten­tial for direct U.S. com­bat in­volve­ment in a con­flict that has been char­ac­ter­ized by con­fu­sion and com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties among dis­parate forces.

Trump, who charged for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama with be­ing weak on Syria, gave the Pen­tagon 30 days af­ter his in­au­gu­ra­tion to pre­pare a new plan to counter the Is­lamic State, and Mat­tis sub­mit­ted a broad out­line to the White House at the end of Fe­bru­ary. Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the head of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, has been fill­ing in more de­tails for that out­line, in­clud­ing by how much to in­crease the U.S. ground pres­ence in Syria.

Vo­tel is set to for­ward his rec­om­men­da­tions to Mat­tis by the end of the month, and the Pen­tagon sec­re­tary is likely to sign off on them, ac­cord­ing to a de­fense of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with the de­lib­er­a­tions.

While the new con­tin­gent of U.S. troops ini­tially would not play a com­bat role, it would be en­ter­ing an in­creas­ingly com­plex and dan­ger­ous bat­tle­field. In re­cent weeks, U.S. Army Rangers have been sent to the city of Man­bij west of Raqqa to de­ter op­po­si­tion forces op­er­at­ing in the area, while a Marine ar­tillery bat­tery re­cently de­ployed near Raqqa al­ready has come un­der fire, ac­cord­ing to a de­fense of­fi­cial with direct knowl­edge of the op­er­a­tions.

The moves also would mark a de­par­ture from the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which re­sisted com­mit­ting more ground troops to Syria.

The im­ple­men­ta­tion of the pro­posed plan, how­ever, re­lies on a num­ber of vari­ables that have yet to be de­ter­mined, in­clud­ing how much to arm Kur­dish and Arab troops on the ground, or what part re­gional ac­tors, such as Turkey, might have in the Raqqa cam­paign.

The new troops, if sent, would be fo­cused on sup­port­ing Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers in north­ern Syria bat­tling the Is­lamic State. Un­der the plan, the added Amer­i­can forces would act pri­mar­ily as ad­vis­ers, of­fer­ing ex­per­tise on bomb dis­posal and co­or­di­nat­ing air sup­port for the coali­tion of Kurds and Arabs, also known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, that with U.S. back­ing have taken a lead­ing role in the fight­ing.

There are al­ready in Syria about 500 U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces op­er­at­ing along­side the SDF, in ad­di­tion to about 250 Rangers and 200 Marines. The new U.S. troops, if ap­proved, would prob­a­bly come from parts of both the 24th Marine Ex­pe­di­tionary Unit — a flotilla of ships loaded with 2,200 Marines that is now steam­ing to­ward the re­gion — and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion, 2,500 mem­bers of which re­cently ar­rived in Kuwait. These con­ven­tional troops would sup­ple­ment the Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces al­ready on the ground and op­er­ate much like their coun­ter­parts fight­ing in the Iraqi city of Mo­sul.

“This would still be by, with and through our lo­cal part­ners on the ground,” one de­fense of­fi­cial, who like oth­ers spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss plans that had not yet been made pub­lic, said of the po­ten­tial surge.

The new Syria de­ploy­ments are also set to oc­cur in tan­dem with a likely White House de­ci­sion that would of­fi­cially abol­ish the troop caps that were put in place for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, lim­it­ing de­ploy­ments to about 5,000 in Iraq and 500 in Syria. Mil­i­tary com­man­ders have said that the caps have split up units for the sake of keep­ing troop num­bers low.

“If the caps were re­moved, it would al­low us to fight as we train,” said the de­fense of­fi­cial who also dis­cussed the po­ten­tial surge. “Mil­i­tary doc­trine pro­motes agility and it would help us re­spond as con­di­tions dic­tate.”

White House of­fi­cials have said that they ex­pect the Raqqa cam­paign to move for­ward much faster than the cur­rent of­fen­sive to re­take Mo­sul and have in­sisted on the need for other op­tions if the cur­rent plan bogs down.

“The les­son learned from Libya and Iraq is that you bet­ter have a Plan B force or you are ask­ing for trou­ble,” said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial with knowl­edge of the plan­ning

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