U.S. air­lifts mili­tia fight­ers in at­tack to cut off Raqqa

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - Michael R. Gor­don and Anne Barnard ©2017 The New York Times

Hun­dreds of Syr­ian fight­ers and their U.S. ad­vis­ers were air­lifted by U.S. he­li­copters across en­emy lines on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day in a bold op­er­a­tion to cut off the western ap­proaches to Raqqa, the self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal of the Is­lamic State.

It was the first time the United States has car­ried out an air as­sault in its cam­paign against the Is­lamic State in Syria, and the at­tack re­flected the lee­way the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has given its com­man­ders to carry out op­er­a­tions with­out pro­longed re­view in Wash­ing­ton.

In a sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ment of U.S. forces, Ma­rine Corps how­itzers and Army Apache at­tack he­li­copters pro­vided fire­power for the op­er­a­tion. U.S. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces are ad­vis­ing the Syr­ian fight­ers on the ground, al­though a mil­i­tary spokesman as­serted that they are not in di­rect, front-line com­bat.

The ob­jec­tive of the of­fen­sive was to seize the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, the nearby town of Tabqa and a lo­cal air­field.

The hope is to take the dam in­tact, but the struc­ture is still un­der the con­trol of the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and of­fi­cials said that fight­ing was in­tense. Though the goal is to seize the dam in com­ing days, the op­er­a­tion is pro­jected to take much longer and rep­re­sents a new stage in the broader of­fen­sive to cut off and seize Raqqa.

“The fight­ing is rag­ing on as I speak and is ex­pected to last sev­eral weeks un­til the dam, air­field and city are free from ISIS con­trol,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, the spokesman for the U.S.led com­mand in Bagh­dad.

De­scrib­ing the op­er­a­tion, U.S. of­fi­cials said a ground force of Syr­ian fight­ers was ap­proach­ing the dam from the north. The air­lift was car­ried out south of the dam, Scrocca said, and ap­peared to take the Is­lamic State by sur­prise.

Im­por­tant de­tails of the op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing how many Syr­ian fight­ers and U.S. ad­vis­ers were in­volved, were not dis­closed. News re­ports sug­gested that 500 Syr­ian fight­ers were de­ployed in the at­tack, but U.S. of­fi­cials hinted that the num­ber might be much larger.

“It could be 500; it could be a heck of a lot more,” Scrocca said in a brief­ing that was broad­cast into the Pen­tagon.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis was in­formed of the op­er­a­tion as was the White House, but the as­sault was car­ried out within the author­ity that has been del­e­gated to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who com­mands the U.S.led coali­tion that is fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. of­fi­cials said Syr­ian Arabs made up 75 per­cent of the fight­ers in­volved in the as­sault but ac­knowl­edged that Syr­ian Kurds were also in­volved. Turkey had ob­jected vo­cif­er­ously to the role of the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia, but U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders think they are among the most ex­pe­ri­enced and pro­fi­cient fight­ers.

As the op­er­a­tion un­folded, Syr­ian state tele­vi­sion and lo­cal res­i­dents as­serted that at least 30 civil­ians were killed in an airstrike on a school in a ru­ral area of Raqqa prov­ince early Tues­day.

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