US Weighs Sending More Special Forces to Syria

US Weighs Sending More Special Forces to SyriaUS Weighs Sending More Special Forces to Syria

The US administration is considering a plan to greatly increase the number of American special operations forces deployed to Syria, as it looks to accelerate recent gains against the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group, US officials told Reuters.

The officials, with direct knowledge of the proposal’s details, declined to disclose the exact increase under consideration. But one of them said it would leave the US special operations contingent many times larger than the around 50 troops currently in Syria, where they operate largely as advisors away from the front lines.

The proposal is among the military options being prepared for President Barack Obama, who is also weighing an increase in the number of American troops in Iraq. A White House spokeswoman declined comment.

The proposal appears to be the latest sign of growing confidence in the ability of US-backed forces inside Syria and Iraq to claw back territory from the militant group.

Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and is proving a potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.

But there are mounting indications that the momentum in Iraq and Syria has shifted against IS.

US officials say the group is losing a battle to forces arrayed against it from many sides in the vast region it controls. In Iraq, the group has been pulling back since December when it lost Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar. In Syria, its fighters have been pushed out of the strategic city of Palmyra by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

Since US-backed forces recaptured the strategic Syrian town of al-Shadadi in late February, a growing number of Arab fighters in Syria have offered to join the fight against the group, the US officials said.

US forces have also had increased success in eliminating top ISIS leaders. Airstrikes in recent weeks killed a top official called Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, and an IS commander described as the group’s “minister of war”—Abu Omar al-Shishani, or Omar the Chechen.

The United States announced last December it was deploying a new force of special operations troops to Iraq to conduct raids against IS there and in neighboring Syria. That followed its announcement in October that dozens of US special forces would be deployed in Syria, the first US ground troops to be stationed there.

The additional US forces in Syria would be primarily assigned to establishing sites where they would train Arab tribesmen volunteering to fight IS. The tribesmen eventually would be provided weapons, paving the way for offensive against the de facto IS capital of Raqqa under US air cover.

The dozens of US special operations forces now in Syria are working closely with a collection of Syrian Arab groups within an alliance dominated by Kurdish forces. The US has been supplying Arabs in the thousands-strong alliance with ammunition since October.

While the strategy is showing results so far, US officials and Kurdish leaders agree that a predominately Arab force is needed to take Raqqa, a majority Arab city whose residents would consider Kurds as occupiers.

The new push by US special operations forces in Syria would be separate from a revised US military effort underway to train a limited number of Syrian fighters in Turkey. That effort is focused on teaching them to identify targets for US-led coalition airstrikes.