US boots on the ground in northern Syria
DAMASCUS - The US military presence in Syria is not a secret anymore. It is no longer limited to providing training and guidance to armed groups fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). Like the Iranians, the Russians and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, US special operations forces are now on a combat mission in the war-torn country, fighting alongside Kurdish-Arab combatants of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a major offensive against ISIS north of the militant capital Raqqa.
American officers and troops are fighting alongside a 12,000-strong force of Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab fighters divided into 31 brigades in an offensive that was launched on May 24th, sources say.
Forty-eight hours after the beginning of the ground assault supported by intensive air power — more than 150 air strikes — the US-backed SDF forces captured a small area of not more than 5 sq km. ISIS militants were later able to retake some of the territory they lost, as they fought back with car bombs and suicide attacks.
Preparations for the assault started several months ago, and large shipments of US-made weapons and ammunition were dispatched to Kurdish-controlled territory in north Syria. The last shipment was delivered a few hours before the commander of Liwaa’ Ahrar al- Raqqa (Raqqa Free Brigade) gave the signal to start the assault from the town of Sharkarak, about 65km north of Raqqa city.
“The aim of the operation is to seize the headquarters of Brigade 17 on the outskirts of Raqqa and not to enter the city,” an SDF field commander said on condition of anonymity.
“Entering the city will not be an easy task, because, knowing ISIS, they would rig the whole area from which they withdraw with booby traps and car bombs, making it very difficult,” the commander said.
A source close to the SDF said about 250 US troops arrived in Ramilan airport in Kurdish-controlled Hasakah province on May 22nd, two days before the offensive.
The launch of “the battle for the liberation of north Raqqa” coincided with Russia’s announcement that it was temporarily suspending its attacks on al-Nusra Front, al- Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, under the pretext of opening the way for opposition groups to disengage from the front.