The United States is boosting support to an operation against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Syria, providing airlift and artillery in addition to the train-and-advise mission, a move that will further deepen America’s involvement in the war-devastated country.
By supporting the operation, which began Tuesday, the U.S.-led coalition forces expect to encircle Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital and the next major target after the fall of Mosul in Iraq.
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), “The U.S. has increased support for operations in and around the city of Tabqa, which includes the nearby Tabqa Dam, adding to the train-and-advise mission U.S. special operations forces have been providing for many months.”
“U.S. troops aren’t conducting combat operations, a senior U.S. military official said, but operations like this one leave them more exposed to the dangers of combat,” adds WSJ.
An estimated 500 American forces are stationed in Syria and 5,000 in neighboring Iraq.
The U.S. military has declined to explicitly say how many U.S. troops are contributing to the mission.
Citing the anonymous Pentagon official, WSJ points out that ISIS jihadists have used Tabqa in the past as a headquarters and to hold hostages.
Moreover, Tabqa is known to house training camps and serve as a place to plan terrorist attacks elsewhere in Syria.
The ultimate goal of the offensive is to retake Raqqa from ISIS. That particular effort is not expected to begin for another month or two.
“Pentagon officials are still deliberating the best approach to take there, including whether to directly support Kurdish fighters,” mentions WSJ.
“Arming the Syrian Kurds, known as the YPG, and letting them take part in coming fights in Syria could come with a high political cost from Turkey, whose president, Recep Erdogan, views them a threat and considers them a terrorist group,” it adds.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) are the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls large swathes of northern Syria.
Turkey considers both the YPG and PYD to be the Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that both Ankara and Washington have designated a terrorist organization.
While Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish groups to be terrorists, the United States does not.
However, a spokesman for the YPG recently acknowledged that the Syrian Kurdish militia maintains “direct relations with Russia,” a friendship that could complicate its relationship with the United States.
A bill signed into law by former President Barack Obama “prevents” the United States “from having military-to-military cooperation” with Russia.
“If the U.S. empowers the Kurds, “you have an enormous challenge as far as relations with Turkey is concerned,” conceded Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at an event in Washington on Wednesday.
“The costs could include access to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, which is used by the U.S. to launch operations in both Iraq and Syria and which Mr. Erdogan can use as a bargaining chip in any negotiations,” explains WSJ.
Turkey has used the strategic base as a bargaining chip in past negotiations.