Turkey threatens as US deploys troops in Syria
Beirut - As the Syrian war edged towards its seventh year on March 15th, several hundred elite US Army Rangers and Marines with heavy artillery have deployed in northern Syria in a modest but significant military escalation by US President Donald Trump in the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) that may further expand in the coming weeks.
US officials on March 8th said the Trump administration could base up to 1,000 US troops in Kuwait to serve as a fast-reaction reserve force in the battle against ISIS — a move that strongly suggests Trump is prepared to substantially raise the stakes in Syria after years of half-hearted US involvement.
However, the US action heightened tensions with Turkey, a NATO partner and nominal ally, and sharply exposed the increasingly complex geopolitical rivalries that have emerged in northern Syria. They come amid final preparations for the battle for Raqqa, de facto capital of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the group’s last urban stronghold in Syria.
Ankara is at odds with the United States over which forces should spearhead the final assault on Raqqa, expected to be unleashed in the next few weeks.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned that Ankara’s relations with the United States could be “seriously damaged” if the Americans continued to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated alliance that has been the United States’ most reliable partner in the multisided Syrian maelstrom.
In a bizarre twist in a long-bewildering war, the primary mission of the US Army Rangers is to protect the Americans’ Kurdish and Arab allies massed in the region from Turkey, which wants its own forces to lead the charge against Raqqa, the big prize in the war to crush ISIS.
There have been sporadic clashes between the two forces, heightening the messy struggle for regional influence between the key powers involved in the Syrian conflict.
The force of 200 US Marines, equipped with 155mm howitzers, which can lob GPS-guided shells 32km, have dug in west of Raqqa. The gunners from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit will provide fire support for US-backed Syrian forces who are preparing to assault Raqqa under cover of US-led air strikes.
The troops from the 75th Ranger Regiment deployed west of the town of Manbij, 65km north-west of Raqqa, with heavily armoured Stryker fighting vehicles.