The 200 additional U.S. troops heading into Syria will support a drive on the self-proclaimed ISIS capital of Raqqa led by Syrian Kurds who are under risk of attack from NATO-ally Turkey, according to a senior U.S. military official.
"They're the horse we're riding to Raqqa," the senior official said of the Syrian Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, or People's Protection Units.
Turkish forces invaded Syria in August to clear border areas under the control of militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and also to attack the YPG, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled a terrorist organization bent on carving out an autonomous Kurdish region.
"Their biggest concern is the Turks behind them" and not the ISIS fighters arrayed against them in Raqqa, the senior official said of the YPG fighters who have been trained and equipped by the U.S. and are widely considered the best rebel fighting force in northeastern Syria.
The Turks "hate who we're working with," the senior official said. The U.S. has cut off air support for the Turkish forces inside Syria out of concern over their intentions.
The senior military official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity last Friday, described an increasingly complex battlefield in Syria in which the U.S. worried about potential clashes between the Turkish forces inside Syria and those of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad pressing north with backing from Russia.
The U.S. military was also operating in a policy vacuum as the Obama administration leaves and President-elect Donald Trump takes over as the new commander-in-chief, the senior official said. He asked, "Is it still a policy objective to remove Assad?"
In a major address on Mideast policy at a security conference with Arab leaders in Bahrain, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, "the United States will deploy approximately 200 additional U.S. forces to Syria, including Special Operations forces, trainers, advisors, and explosive ordnance disposal teams."
"These uniquely skilled operators will join the 300 U.S. special operations forces already in Syria, to continue organizing, training, equipping, and otherwise enabling capable, motivated, local forces to take the fight to ISIL, and also bringing down to bear the full weight of U.S. forces around the theater of operations like the funnel of a giant tornado," Carter said, using another acronym for ISIS.
The speech was expected to be Carter's last on Mideast policy. Trump has announced that he will nominate retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to replace Carter as Defense Secretary in the new administration.
In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon last Friday, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said that U.S. and coalition warplanes had carried out nearly 300 airstrikes over the last month to support the advance on Raqqa of the mixed force of Kurdish and Arab fighters led by the YPG and known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces.
"These strikes have destroyed about 90 fortifications and over 50 vehicles," and were continuing to disrupt supply routes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Dorrian said.
"The SDF, with its Arab elements, has enabled the establishment of a governance structure representative of the local population" in areas liberated from ISIS, including the flashpoint town of Manbij, Dorrian said.
"They've begun providing services to the people of Manbij, including having opened more than 240 schools since its liberation. A similar model with local governance is in the works for Raqqa once it is liberated," Dorrian said.
Dorrian also noted the threat to the advance on Raqqa from Turkey. He said that the U.S. was "facilitating joint discussions with Turkey, the SDF and other coalition partners to promote de-escalation in the area. These meetings are starting points in addressing a challenging situation."
Dorrian acknowledged that "There have been instances where -- previous instances where there has been an exchange of fire between the SDF and the Turks -- the Turkish military. That has already occurred at different times during the campaign. So what we're trying to do is make sure that we keep all these operations de-conflicted."
The Turkish General Staff claimed Saturday that more than 70 PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) and ISIS terrorists had been killed by recent Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria and in Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey, Turkey's Andalou news agency reported.
Turkey has charged that the YPG is an offshoot of the PKK, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
In a statement, the Turkish General Staff said that local forces backed by Turkey called the Free Syrian Army were also closing in on the ISIS-held town of al-Bab in northeastern Syria with the support of Turkish tanks, artillery and airstrikes, Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported.
The senior U.S. official who spoke on background last week said the U.S. also had concerns about a potential all-out fight he called a "meeting engagement" around al-Bab that would involve the Turks and the Syrian opposition, and the Assad regime forces backed by the Russians moving from the south. "This is a very tenuous situation," the senior official said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.