An American-backed Syrian Kurdish coalition said Wednesday that the US had landed infantry behind Islamic State lines to spearhead an assault on the town of Tabqa.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said the US airlifted several Marines and SDF fighters by helicopter into Islamic State-held territory, capturing four villages, and cutting the main artery running between the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa and the western countryside.
It was not immediately possible to confirm the deployment with US commanders.
The group said in a statement on social media Wednesday that the operation was in preparation for an assault on Tabqa, an IS redoubt 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa.
The activist-run group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said 500 US and Syrian Kurdish forces were deployed in the operation Wednesday morning. The group relies on local contacts to smuggle information out of IS territory.
Earlier this month, a couple of hundred Marines were deployed into Syria with heavy artillery guns, as part of the preparations to oust the IS from Raqqa.
The Marines moving into Syria were pre-positioning howitzers to be ready to assist local Syrian forces, a senior US official said at the time.
The latest troop movements come on the heels of the recent temporary deployment of some dozens of Army soldiers to the outskirts of Manbij, Syria, in what the Pentagon called a “reassure and deter” mission. Flying American flags and moving in large, heavily armored vehicles, the troops were there to keep a lid on tensions in the area, the Pentagon has said.
Although the deployment of Marines to Syria is temporary, it is likely an early indication that the White House is leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the IS fight. Military commanders frustrated by what they considered micromanagement under the previous administration have argued for greater freedom to make daily decisions on how best to fight the enemy.
Under the existing limits put in place by the Obama administration, the military can have up to 503 US troops in Syria. But temporary personnel do not count against the cap.
On Wednesday, top officials from the 68-nation coalition fighting the IS met in Washington to discuss new ideas to expand the fight against IS and prepare for the aftermath of its defeat in both Syria and Iraq.