News / USA

    How Involved Are US Special Forces in Fight Against Islamic State?

    FILE - In this 2013 photo, U.S. special operations forces watch forces from Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during a multinational military exercise in Zarqa, Jordan.
    FILE - In this 2013 photo, U.S. special operations forces watch forces from Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon during a multinational military exercise in Zarqa, Jordan.

    As Defense Secretary Ash Carter calls for continued U.S. "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group, the public is still trying to figure out the current role of U.S. troops deployed there.

    The United States currently has about 3,550 service members in Iraq, with about 2,750 of those aiding Iraqi security forces as trainers, advisers or support staff, according to U.S. Central Command data released to VOA.

    Some 100 of these are special forces, according to defense officials. There are also 50 U.S. special operations forces in Syria.

    ‘The front lines’

    Last week, Carter told service members at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, that U.S. special operators have unique capabilities, from intelligence gathering to "the ability to provide advice and assistance, or accompany local forces to the front lines."

    Despite assertions from the Obama administration that the U.S. is "not in a combat role" in Iraq and Syria, some officials appear mixed as to whether special forces are on the front lines in the war against the Islamic State.

    "The SOF [special operations forces] in Syria are going to have to get to the front lines to get the best situational awareness of what's there," a U.S. official who wished to remain anonymous told VOA.

    "To truly understand — do they need more weapons? Do they need more ammunition? Who are the right partners? They've got to go out there and see it for themselves," he added.

    FILE - A U.S. service member salutes her fallen comrades during a memorial ceremony for six airmen killed in a suicide attack, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2015.
    FILE - A U.S. service member salutes her fallen comrades during a memorial ceremony for six airmen killed in a suicide attack, at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, Dec. 23, 2015.

    Another U.S. official told VOA that "the guys in Syria aren't hanging out on a base," but he wasn't aware of them going to the front lines. They were "advising and assisting" local fighters, he said.

    But the so-called advise-and-assist role sometimes glosses over what's really going on with special forces, according to Michael Weiss, the author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

    "I don't think special forces are sent in to advise anything. They're sent in to kill people, to offer backup to somewhat reliable and trustworthy militant proxies," Weiss told VOA.

    Even if the military wanted to discuss the activities of the approximately 7,500 special operations forces deployed to at least 85 countries on any given week, the work done by those elite teams is often shielded from the public.

    "Most of it is classified," said Ken McGraw, the spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command.

    ‘Incredibly important' in fighting IS

    One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA that the role of the approximately 150 U.S. special forces in Iraq and Syria is "incredibly important to the fight" against IS militants.

    Carter and others have said publicly that special forces soldiers have taken part — and will continue to take part — in action targeting IS. Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said in December, "Make no mistake about it, these forces, along with their Iraqi partners … will be conducting raids."

    FILE - U. S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses the U.S. troops as he stands in front of a drone at the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, Dec. 15, 2015.
    FILE - U. S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses the U.S. troops as he stands in front of a drone at the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, Dec. 15, 2015.

    Special forces conducted at least two raids in Syria: a failed rescue attempt and the raid in eastern Syria last May that killed IS commander Abu Sayyaf. They also participated in an October raid in Hawijah, Iraq, that freed 70 hostages held by IS. A Delta Force soldier, 39-year-old Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was killed during that mission.

    The May 2015 raid on Abu Sayyaf also provided a treasure trove of intelligence materials that led to several operations targeting Islamic State's financial network.

    Airstrips and eyewitnesses

    Recent imagery and eyewitness accounts in Syria and Iraq appear to support increased involvement by U.S. special forces.

    According to the global intelligence company Stratfor, low-resolution satellite imagery taken December 28, 2015, shows construction to extend the runway at an airfield in Syria's al-Hasaka province. The extension would allow the airfield to accommodate larger aircraft.

    And Peshmerga sources in Iraq interviewed by The Guardian said the U.S. has been involved in a several front-line fights with IS fighters. As The Guardian reports:

    * On April 20, U.S. forces played a role in an operation to retake Dawus al Aloka village southwest of Kirkuk, in which they fired about 47 mortars at Isis positions.

    * They were also involved in two attempts to retake the villages of Wastana and Saddam settlement southwest of Kirkuk on June 11 and August 26.

    * On September 11, special forces troops participated in the successful operation to retake Wastana.

    FILE - Iraqi, U.S. and Spanish soldiers participate in a training mission outside Baghdad, Iraq, May 27, 2015.
    FILE - Iraqi, U.S. and Spanish soldiers participate in a training mission outside Baghdad, Iraq, May 27, 2015.

    The Pentagon denied involvement in these fights, but an increase in special operations assistance to fighters and special forces raids could play into the hand of a president who might be willing to take more risks his last year in office than he took in the first 18 months of the campaign against IS, according to Weiss.

    "For a president who doesn't want to deploy American troops, but who does fancy what we call 'dirty war' or covert ops such as the Abbottabad raid on Osama bin Laden, this makes perfect sense," Weiss said.


    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Egypt.

    You May Like

    Video Democrats Clinton, Kaine Offer 'Very Different Vision' Than Trump

    In a jab at Trump, Clinton says her team wants to 'build bridges, not walls'; Obama Hails Kaine's record; Trump calls Kaine a 'job-killer'

    Turkey Wants Pakistan to Close Down institutions, Businesses Linked to Gulen

    Thousands of Pakistani students are enrolled in Gulen's commercial network of around two dozen institutions operating in Pakistan for over two decades

    AU Passport A Work in Progress

    Who will get the passport and what the benefits are still need to be worked out

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Sarah from: US
    January 26, 2016 11:40 PM
    The real secret is how many private contractors are fighting IS.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movementi
    X
    July 22, 2016 11:49 AM
    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora