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IS conflict: US sends Marines to support Raqqa assault

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Cpl. Demetrius Morgan/US Marine Corps

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The Marines will reportedly set up an artillery battery including M777 Howitzers

The US has sent several hundred Marines to Syria to support an allied local force aiming to capture the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.

Defence officials told the Washington Post they would establish an outpost from which they could fire artillery at IS positions some 32km (20 miles) away.

US special forces are already on the ground, advising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.

The alliance is expected to launch an assault on Raqqa in the coming weeks.

Over the weekend, a separate force of elite US army Rangers was also deployed near a town north-west of Raqqa in heavily armoured vehicles, in an attempt to end clashes between SDF fighters and a Turkish-backed rebel force.

What are the marines going to do?

The defence officials told the Washington Post that the Marines were from the San Diego-based 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and that they had flown to northern Syria via Djibouti and Kuwait.

They are to set up an artillery battery that could fire powerful 155mm shells from M777 howitzers, the officials said.

Another marine expeditionary unit carried out a similar mission at the start of the Iraqi government’s operation to recapture the city of Mosul from IS last year.

Isn’t there a limit on the number of US troops in Syria?

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Reuters

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Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters are expected to launch an assault on Raqqa soon

Under former President Barack Obama, US special operations forces were deployed to recruit, train and advise the SDF’s Arab and Kurdish fighters. However, their numbers were limited to 500.

The Marines’ deployment is considered temporary, so it is not affected by the cap.

What about the Rangers?

A spokesman for the US-led multinational coalition against IS, Colonel John Dorrian, told Reuters news agency on Thursday that the dozens of Rangers who recently arrived on the outskirts of Manbij, about 110km (68 miles) from Raqqa, were also there “for a temporary period”.

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AFP

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US army Rangers arrived on the outskirts of Manbij in heavily armoured vehicles

Pentagon officials had earlier said the Rangers were taking part in a “reassure and deter” mission following clashes between Turkish-backed Arab rebels and local fighters from the Manbij Military Council, which was set up by the SDF when it captured the town from IS last year.

Last week, after Turkey’s president said the rebels aimed to capture Manbij, the council said it had agreed a deal with Russia to hand a string of villages on the frontline over to Syrian government forces in order to protect them.

Turkey considers the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia, which dominates the SDF, an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which operates inside Turkey.

Does this still signal an escalation in US involvement?

It is not yet clear but the deployment comes as President Donald Trump considers a new plan to defeat IS that was submitted by the Pentagon late last month.

Reports say the review may lead to an increase in the number of US troops in Syria, but not a dramatic shift in strategy.

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AP

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Some 6,000 US troops are deployed in Iraq and Syria as part of a coalition against IS

The Associated Press news agency reports that Mr Trump wants to give the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the fight against IS.

Commanders on the ground were frustrated by what they considered micromanagement by the Obama administration, it adds.

The US is also said to be preparing to send up to 1,000 troops to Kuwait to serve as a reserve force that can deployed to fight IS in Syria and Iraq if necessary.

In total, about 6,000 US troops are in the countries, but largely in advisory roles.


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