— -- The 50 or so U.S. Special Operations Forces being sent to northeast Syria will not be advising Syrian rebels on the front lines engaging in combat or conducting special operations raids, a Defense Department official said today. Instead they will work at a rebel headquarters far from enemy lines to see what more help the U.S. can provide them in the fight against ISIS.
The primary mission of the small team of U.S. forces will be to advise and assist the various groups that make up the Syrian Arab Coalition, a group of 10 rebel groups that have successfully pushed back ISIS from part of northeast Syria, the official said. Their mission is to advise the groups that make up the coalition and monitor their progress in the fight against ISIS.
“The whole point of this exercise is to get on the ground -- see what’s there,” said a senior Defense Department official who briefed Pentagon reporters about the deployment. “To see what we can work with and move out from there.”
The official said the goal is to work “face to face” with the various rebel groups with whom the U.S. has until now only dealt with remotely.
“Our vision at least at the outset is to go in for small amounts of time and to one location,” the official said. That one location is essentially a headquarters for the Syrian Arab Coalition where the coalition’s various groups work together. They will operate in Syria for a period of “weeks or months” not lasting more than 60 days each time, the official said.
The U.S. forces will remain at the headquarters and will not go out in the field to advise the rebel forces they are working with. However, the official did not rule out that changing in the future, noting how the strategy has been adjusted over the past year depending on conditions on the ground.
Nor will they be calling in airstrikes for rebel forces, since the official said rebel forces are already adept at passing information to the U.S.-led coalition that is used for airstrikes in Syria.
The 50 tons of small arms ammunition airdropped to the coalition a few weeks ago will serve as a test for the coalition to see how much more assistance the U.S. could provide. The official said the ammunition drop will help with “testing the waters” to see if the coalition is actually using that ammunition against ISIS. Doing so could lead to airdrops of small arms weapons in the future, the official said. So far, there are indications that they have begun to use the airdropped ammunition against ISIS forces.
For now the Pentagon has not recommended sending more American troops to Syria beyond the number announced today. However, the official candidly admitted, “it would be a fool’s errand to say at this point, we’re not going to adjust again” as that could change “based on conditions on the ground, what we learn and the level of risk.”
The U.S. will also be significantly ramping up its air operations at the Turkish base in Incirlik just across the border from Syria, the official said. The dozen A-10 aircraft that just rotated into that base will be joined by 12 F-15 fighter aircraft that will conduct more airstrikes in Syria. The official said it is possible that other countries in the anti-ISIS coalition will also send aircraft to Incirlik.