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