The Pentagon is sending about 400 Marines to Syria to help local fighters wrest control of Raqqa, which ISIS considers its capital.
The Pentagon says the new troops will fire artillery rounds at ISIS fighters in support of the local forces, as well as provide security for the Marine artillerymen, as NPR’s Phil Ewing reports.
These 400 troops will bring the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Syria to about 900, Phil says.
“The military is trying to copy as much as it can from the playbook it’s using in Iraq, where American troops aren’t supposed to be in direct combat, but instead help local forces with indirect fire, airstrikes, training and weapons,” he adds.
The aggressive new strategy marks a shift for the Pentagon, which has “mostly shied away from using conventional forces in Syria,” as The Washington Post reports.
The Syrian Defense Forces — the U.S.-supported coalition led by Kurds that also includes Arab and Turkmen fighters — have been working to isolate Raqqa since November, as we reported. The northern Syrian city, which fell under ISIS control in 2014, is the militant group’s most important stronghold in the country.
The U.S.-led coalition said Wednesday that it was winning the broader war against ISIS. “The enemy is being degraded by every measure and is on a trajectory to lasting defeat,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, said at a Senate hearing Thursday that the purpose of the new deployment was to “to ensure that we had redundant, capable fire support on the ground to support our partners and to ensure … that we could take advantage of opportunities and ensure continued progress that we’ve been seeing.”
The Pentagon tells NPR that the Marine battalion will be equipped with howitzers. The weapon provides some hints as to how close to the fighting the artillerymen will stand, according to The Washington Post:
“For the base in Syria to be useful, it must be within about 20 miles of the operations that U.S.-backed forces are carrying out. That is the estimated maximum range on many rounds fired from the M-777 howitzer. GPS-guided Excalibur rounds, which the Marines also used after establishing Fire Base Bell [outside Mosul, Iraq], can travel closer to 30 miles.”
Coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Col. John Dorrian has told Reuters that the operation to isolate Raqqa “could be completed in a few weeks.” Then, he told the wire service, “the decision to move in can be made.”