The US has significantly deepened its involvement in the war on ISIS in Syria, landing Kurdish forces behind ISIS lines.
US aircraft ferried Syrian Kurdish fighters and allied forces behind Islamic State (ISIS) lines on Wednesday to spearhead a major ground assault on a strategic town held by the terror group outside its self-declared capital, Raqqa, the Pentagon said. This marks the first time US forces have provided airlift for local forces on a combat operation in Syria.
The airlift was part of what Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon described as a large, high-priority offensive to secure the area around Tabqa and the associated Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River which supplies electric power to the area.
“This is a significant strategic target,” said Pahon. If successful, the operation would “basically cut ISIS off” from the western approaches to Raqqa.
The US has significantly widened its footprint in northern Syria in the past few weeks as it prepares for the operation to push the militants from Raqqa, deploying a Marine artillery unit and a few dozen Army Rangers in addition to special operation troops and advisers to assist the local forces.
‘This is Pretty Major’
Wednesday’s airlift, which Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, described as a first, displayed a new level of commitment to Syria’s Kurds.
Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the US-led coalition that is overseeing the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq, said multiple US helicopters and other aircraft were used to land the Syrian fighters south of Tabqa. The US also provided artillery fire from a Marine contingent, as well as close air support by US Army Apache helicopters, he said.
“This is pretty major,” he said, adding the fight for the dam, the town and the airfield is expected to last at least a couple of weeks. He would not say how many Syrian fighters were involved. In contradiction to earlier US statements, Scrocca said some of the Syrian fighters who were airlifted to Tabqa were Kurds. He said 75 to 80 percent of the fighters were Syrian Arabs.
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed the airlift and said their fighters seized four villages south of the Euphrates and cut the main artery between Raqqa and northwestern Syria.
The group said in a statement on social media that US infantry were also airlifted into the area of operations. Scrocca said that an undisclosed number of US military advisers were also flown in. Both said that no US troops were involved in fighting on the front line.
Tabqa lies 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Raqqa. The Islamic State group controls the town as well as the dam and a military airfield nearby.
“This is a big operation,” Pahon said, adding that Tabqa is an important ISIS-held area because of the dam that provides electricity to the area. He said ISIS has controlled the area since 2013 and used it for a combination of purposes, including as a prison for high-profile hostages and as a training camp and headquarters.
Retaking the dam would go a long way in isolating Raqqa and is a crucial step ahead of the assault on the city. There has been concern the terror group would destroy the dam, flooding the region.