PENTAGON - 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.
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."
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.
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.