By Baran Hines
U.S. Marines are now on the ground in Syria as part of military operations against the Islamic State, according to multiple news reports citing Pentagon officials. The number of Marines in the new deployment is unknown; however, the US has current authorization for 500 troops in Syria from Obama Administration efforts. Most credible estimates suggest there were about 300 US soldiers already in Syria as part of Special Forces operations in support of local factions who are fighting the Islamic State, leaving room for 200 Marines.
Pentagon officials refused to publicly confirm the troop movements, citing operational security. Fox News is reporting that the new deployment is expected to be discussed Thursday by Gen. Joe Votel who is expected to testify before Congress about the Islamic State operations. Votel is the head of U.S. Central Command, and he is the top U.S. general in command of American forces in the Middle East.
An additional report by Reuters revealed a plan to stage up to 1,000 additional US soldiers in Kuwait if needed in case the battle in Syria intensifies.
One official cited by Washington Post noted that the Marines’ movement into Syria was not part of President Donald Trump’s request of a new plan to fight Islamic State but that it had “been in the works for some time.”
The Trump Administration has made some recent decisions that conflict with election promises to withdraw the influence of the United States from some aspects of the Syrian proxy war. Speculation suggested that Trump’s directives would end covert activity beginning under Barack Obama, which was tasked with helping armed militant groups fighting against the Syrian President Bashar al Assad and government soldiers.
A video from the Russian news agency RUPTLY showed what appears to be a US Marine convoy traveling through Manbij in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey. The battlefield space around this area has been critical to controlling remaining areas under the control of Islamic State or other militant groups since the Syrian Arab Army has recaptured many other areas of the country. Thousands of militants have surrendered to the Syrian government in recent months since the liberation of Aleppo and a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russian officials.
The border area in northern Syria is of strategic importance for advancing towards Raqqa in central Syria, which is the declared capital of the Islamic State caliphate. These areas in northern Syria have been described as crowded because of military activity by the United States, Turkey, and Russia. The three countries are in a race to end Islamic State control of Raqqa and the areas that lead to Iraq’s borders.
The three countries have been supporting multiple groups in this area with conflicting interests, including Turkey’s support for the terrorist group known as Ahrar al Sham. Turkey has clashed with US over support for extremist groups but insists the groups are fighting the Islamic State. US policy has been to support Kurdish factions against the Islamic State, which Turkey is opposed to because they consider the Kurds to be terrorists against the Turkish government.
Turkey began military operations in northern Syria in late 2016 as part of efforts to control the Euphrates River valley areas under the justification of national security, despite allowing Islamic State to operate freely in the area since 2014. A viral video showed Turkey’s border guards waving hello and having polite conversation with Islamic State terrorists in October 2014.
Last week, a Syrian military plane was shot down in the area by the terrorist group Ahrar al Sham, which is supported by Turkey. Russian officials have repeatedly called for Ahrar al Sham to be declared terrorists and ineligible for ceasefire agreements as part of the peace process for Syria. US officials under the Obama Administration have actively fought those requests over the last 2 years, specifically at the State Department where diplomatic policy was put into action.
US officials also reported that Russian planes bombed the Syrian Arab Coalition, a collection of questionable militant groups which are supported by the United States. The incident was also reported as a close call for US troops, who were a few miles from the area of the attack at the time.