US increasing presence in Syria, Iraq
BEIRUT - Three US Air Force transport planes carrying small arms and ammunition touched down February 4th at a newly established US special forces base at Rmeilan near the Euphrates river in north-eastern Syria, the first American military planes to land in Syria since war erupted there nearly five years ago.
The arrival of the lumbering C-130 Hercules aircraft marked a new phase in the United States’ participation in the bewildering Syrian conflict, in which US President Barack Obama seems ready, after years of working to avoid being dragged into another Middle Eastern fight, to turn up the heat against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
Obama was pressured to become more aggressive largely by ferocious ISIS terrorist attacks in France, Turkey, North Africa, Egypt and elsewhere since August in which hundreds of people were killed.
US Army engineers extended the runway of a disused crop-dusters’ airstrip at Rmeilan for the four-engine C-130s to deliver arms to the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a 30,000-strong coalition dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Fifty US operatives are at Rmeilan, a modest start for what Washington hails as a more aggressive phase in the war on ISIS, even though there have been several small escalations in recent months.
Counter-insurgency experts, however, do not believe that beefing up US special forces and expanding a 17-month-old, US-led air campaign will be enough to cripple the jihadists or the Islamic caliphate they proclaimed in June 2014.
The Pentagon has not disclosed the number of troops destined for Syria and Iraq but US sources say that these will probably number only a few hundred.
What is needed though, analysts say, is a full-blown military ground offensive against ISIS citadels in the north-eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital, and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, with intense air attacks.
ISIS’s efforts to expand its caliphate have been checked but the Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded recently that ISIS remains “unchallenged in its core terrain across Iraq and Syria. The organisation will likely retain this safe haven for the foreseeable future, allowing it to continue to resource and direct attacks on the West.”
Republican hardliners have demanded 20,000 US troops be deployed in Syria and Iraq; presidential hopeful US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is pressing for a World War II-style “carpet bombing” campaign against ISIS strongholds, particularly Raqqa.
Support for such operations is limited — for now anyway — largely because they would cause heavy civilian casualties. The Russians have done this since they intervened on September 30th to save the regime of President Bashar Assad from collapse — and they have turned the tables on their foes.
The United States has about 3,700 troops in Iraq. These include 200 special forces operatives but most are there to train and advise the Iraqi military as it rebuilds to move against ISIS-held cities.