A contingent of U.S. Marines has arrived in northeast Syria to provide artillery support for local forces in an upcoming assault on Raqqa, the defacto capital of the Islamic State terror group, U.S. officials said.
But there appears to be no final agreement yet between Washington and Ankara on the disposition of the Raqqa attack force — whether U.S.-backed Kurdish militiamen or Turkish-led Syrian rebels will be in the vanguard to oust an estimated 4,000 jihadists entrenched in the city.
As the Marines arrived, Turkey’s foreign minister Thursday warned Turkish-led forces will attack U.S.-backed militiamen from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, if they don’t leave a key town in northern Syria.
Such a move would complicate an assault on Raqqa, one that has been delayed for months because of disputes over who should lead the offensive.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkish forces would strike the YPG in Manbij, arguing the Kurdish occupation of the town is a hindrance to Turkish efforts to carve out a safe zone in northern Syria. He gave no deadline though for an attack. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, and has repeatedly urged Washington to drop its support of the Syrian Kurdish militiamen.
Cavusoglu accused Washington of being confused in its planning for an attack on the IS stronghold of Raqqa.
According to U.S. officials, a contingent from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit has deployed in northern Syria within 32 kilometer artillery range of Raqqa. The contingent is equipped with M777 Howitzers, capable of firing 155mm shells. The Syrian deployment mirrors a similar move last year in Iraq when artillery-equipped U.S. Marines arrived ahead of the start of the assault to take Mosul, IS’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq, in order to provide covering fire for Iraqi security forces.
A senior U.S. defense official says the detachment includes “a couple hundred Marines,” but the Pentagon has declined formally to confirm the deployment or to detail any location for the Marines or the numbers on the ground.
The deployment marks an escalation of U.S. military involvement in Syria. Several hundred Special Operations troops have been advising the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Last weekend, some of those Special Forces, a hundred U.S. Rangers, deployed in Manbij in a bid to deter clashes between YPG fighters and Turkish-led rebels.
The deployment comes as the Trump administration debates a Raqqa plan drafted by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the U.S. commander overseeing the campaign against the Islamic State. On March 1 in a briefing for reporters, Townsend declined to go into any details about the plan but he emphasized the coalition strategy of working with local partners in the battle against IS would continue.
“That’s still the right way to go,” he said. “It’s working. Our local partners are fully invested. They’re leading the fight and we’re just here helping them.”
He confirmed recently as well that a small number of American conventional soldiers have been assisting Special Operations troops in Syria with a truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and with medical and other logistical support.
U.S. military officials told VOA that there is skepticism at the Pentagon about the capability of Turkish-led Syrian rebel forces and they question whether they are up to the task. They point to the drawn-out assault mounted by the Turkish forces to recently retake the town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo.
There are also Pentagon concerns that if Turkish-led forces move east of the Euphrates River to attack Raqqa, there will inevitably be clashes with Kurdish militiamen, who will see the arrival of the Turkish-led forces as a move aimed as much at them as IS.
Turkey has been determined to prevent Syrian Kurds from linking Kurdish-majority cantons along the Turkish-Syrian border, fearing the Kurds are determined to set up their own mini-state in northern Syria.
Earlier this week, in an unusual three-way meeting in southern Turkey, the top commanders of the U.S., Russian and Turkish armed forces discussed how IS could be ousted from Raqqa. Turkish officials after the meeting indicated there had been no resolution over who should spearhead the Raqqa assault. Russian commanders insisted that whoever takes Raqqa, the city must be handed over to the Syrian army afterwards, said Turkish officials.