US poised to send ground troops to fight in Syria, beginning new phase

According to a report in the UK Times, the new US administration is preparing to send ground troops to fight in Syria.

Early versions of a plan ordered by new President Donald Trump to combat the Islamic State (IS) in its stronghold Raqqa are circulating in the White House, according to the report.

Trump’s defence team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and newly appointed national security advisor Lieutenant General HR McMaster are known to favour an “accelerated campaign” against the jihadist group.

There are already thought to be 500 US special forces in Syria supporting the Kurdish-Arab led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF are on the outskirts of Raqqa city, awaiting the disclosure of the plan, before an assault is launched on the city centre.

US officials, including intelligence and military heads, met with Turkish officials recently to discuss Ankara’s objections to the pending onslaught on Raqqa and alternative plans to take the city. Turkey does not want the operation to be conducted by the SDF, which it says is a guise for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara believes is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and therefore a terrorist organisation. The US rejects this claim.

However, according to analysts, recent developments in and around al-Bab have made the possibility of a Turkish-backed FSA operation on Raqqa almost impossible. The Syrian Arab Army’s blocking of southern al-Bab through Tadef and towards Manbij, a city held by the SDF, has stopped the FSA groups’ advance towards Raqqa.

The recent visit by US Central Command General Joseph Votel to Kobani and the Raqqa front, and a promise of continued support and heavy weapons to the SDF makes it likely that the onslaught to capture the IS stronghold will be launched by the 50,000 strong Arab-Kurdish majority fighting force.

Commentators have also speculated that with the deployment of more US troops to Syria, like the 5,000 soldiers in Iraq, the US will balance influence on the ground, which has increasingly swayed in Russia and Iran’s favour. It is probable that the troops will fight alongside the SDF if they are deployed, which will also be seen as further acceptance of the autonomous administration (Rojava) in northern Syria by the US, commentators have said.

Donald Trump could use a speech in Congress on Tuesday to unveil his plans beginning a new period in the Syrian conflict.