US increasing presence in Syria, Iraq

Friday 12/02/2016
United States has about 3,700 troops in 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.