President Obama has announced that an additional 250 military personnel will head to Syria to work with Syrian rebel forces fighting ISIS in the country. They will join a group of 50 special operations forces that have been doing that since earlier this year.
ABC News explains how the additional forces being sent to Syria could help with plans to retake Raqqa, ISIS's de facto capital in central Syria.
What Have American Troops Been Doing in Syria?
Earlier this year, the U.S. began rotating small special operations teams into northeastern Syria to work with local Kurdish and Syrian Arab rebel forces that have been fighting ISIS. Collectively known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the forces are estimated to number as many as 20,000 fighters.
One of the main goals of the 50 special operators sent to work with the rebel groups was to gather information about them and determine if they could be good partners for the U.S. against ISIS. They also worked with them to facilitate their communications and help plan offensives against ISIS to retake large areas of territory.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Monday that one of the most important things the original group of 50 has done so far is "helping those local forces be able to identify targets on the ground for coalition airstrikes."
What Will the Additional 250 U.S. troops Do in Syria?
Cook essentially said the additional 250 military personnel being sent to Syria will carry out the same role as the original group of 50 as “force multipliers.”
While hesitant to provide details about the specific makeup of the additional troops, Cook acknowledged they will include special operations forces as well as medical and logistical personnel. He would only say that “a good number” of them would be special operations forces tasked with meeting and working with local rebel forces.
Currently, the U.S. military's relationship with the Syrian Kurd and Arab rebel forces in northeast Syria is transactional. The U.S. provides more ammunition and supplies to groups as confidence grows in their ability to fight ISIS and cooperate with the U.S.
“Those forces that perform well will get additional U.S. support and these particular U.S. forces will be in the business of trying to identify who those people are,” said Cook.
Since earlier this year, Syrian Democratic Forces have retaken the towns of al-Hawl, al-Shaddadi, and the strategic Tishrin Dam with the help of American planning and airstrikes.
American officials want that battlefield pressure on ISIS to continue with a push on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. But, Kurdish forces make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces and it remains unclear if those forces will be willing to attack Raqqa. That is one reason why the Pentagon wants to identify and work with Syrian Arab rebel groups in northeastern Syria that are willing to take the fight to Raqqa.
Will the New Troops Be Engaged in Combat?
President Obama made it clear that the new forces headed to Syria will not be engaged in combat.
"They're not going to be leading the fight on the ground, but they will be essential in providing the training and assisting local forces that continue to drive ISIL back," said Obama.
Cook acknowledged that even though the new troops will be in a support role away from the front lines, they are still operating under dangerous conditions. "They're in harm's way, we should be crystal clear about that, and they will be able to defend themselves if they come under fire. But that is not the intent of this deployment."
He explained that the medical personnel accompanying the new troops is not an indication that they will be closer to the front lines. "That is an appropriate precaution for us to take. Same with force protection for these folks, everything they're doing, we want to be able to make sure that they're put in a position of success, and that we are taking every step that we can to keep them as safe as possible.”
Separately, a defense official told ABC News that the 50 special operations forces that have been operating inside Syria have also had medical support personnel working as part of their operations.