WASHINGTON — US Marines have begun moving into northern Syria to set up an outpost that will be a key part of the battle to bring down ISIS in its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
Roughly 300 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who have been stationed in Kuwait for several weeks waiting for orders to enter Syria, began moving into place on Wednesday. The troops will be stationed roughly 25 kilometers north of Raqqa and are bringing an artillery battery and Osprey attack helicopters, a US defense official told BuzzFeed News.
The Marines' arrival was the largest believed single movement of US troops into Syria at one time since the war against ISIS began more than two years ago, though there have been US Special Operations forces acting in Syria for some time now.
The deployment was first reported by the Washington Post.
The plan is a carbon copy of the US approach in the run-up in the battle to take back Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, from ISIS that began to be put into place last year. In Iraq, members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed roughly 40 kilometers south of Mosul and set up a similar outpost. But within days of the Marines' March arrival, Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed by rocket fire launched at the outpost.
The outposts are designed to support local troops as they move into ISIS-controlled cities, and where US troops backing those local forces can be based. It is unclear though just what local forces would lead the push — and what kind of weapons the US would supply them with.
The US has said it is training Arab forces, but also conceded the Kurdish forces would be needed to help as their attacks against the militant group have been the most effective. And Turkey has suggested it would be a part of the battle for Raqqa but offered no specifics. How the Kurds are involved, and what kind of weapons they are equipped with, could draw the ire of Turkey, a NATO partner.
Ever since ISIS took control of Mosul in June 2014, the US military has called the battles for Mosul and Raqqa key to the end of ISIS. It took Iraqi forces roughly 100 days to reclaim eastern Mosul and they currently are battling ISIS in western Mosul, in what is expected to be an even longer and more difficult struggle.
But in recent days, the US military officials have begun saying that Raqqa will not be the final battle, as the terror group has begun evacuating its leaders from the city, spreading them out to nearby Syrian cities and along the Euphrates River valley. In January, the US military said ISIS was even moving its bureaucrats in anticipation of a campaign to reclaim the city.
That the US military is already considering plans to attack the new areas of ISIS's territory suggests the focus on measuring ISIS strength is in their physical infrastructure. But Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, warns that while ISIS has had impressive territorial and infrastructure gains, stopping it is not as easy as taking back land.
“There has been no fundamental change in ISIS strategy,” Cafarella told BuzzFeed News. “It is important to start understanding the ISIS problem as something beyond Mosul and Raqqa.”
President Donald Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to craft a plan to defeat ISIS, which it presented last week. So far, the president has not given any details about how the US approach will change under his administration. But the movement of Marines suggested he had made at least one decision — the war for Raqqa will move ahead.
Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com.
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