WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is developing proposals for sending an unspecified number of American military personnel into Syria, conventional ground forces who would augment the 500 combat advisers already there coordinating efforts to destroy the Islamic State.
First reported Wednesday by CNN, any such deployment would have to be approved by President Donald Trump. However, the commander in chief has directed military leaders to fast track plans for defeating the terror group and, according to White House documents leaked to the media late last month, he has expressed a willingness to expand the United States’ presence in war-torn Syria.
Defense Department officials would neither confirm nor deny the report.
“We are in the process of conducting our 30-day review of the strategy to defeat ISIS as directed by the president,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State. “We are considering a number of measures to accelerate the campaign as part of that review, but no decisions have been made.”
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Islamic State campaign in Syria and neighboring Iraq, told Military Times that no deployment announcements are imminent.
However, multiple U.S. Army sources indicated that about two thousand soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team soon may bolster other Army elements already in the region. Currently, about 1,800 paratroopers from the 2nd BCT are in Iraq participating in the U.S. military’s train-and-advise mission. The 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Citing an unidentified U.S. defense official, CNN indicated additional deployments could happen within weeks.
Today, there are about 5,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and another 500 in Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is “actively engaged with his combatant commanders and commanders on the ground to listen to their recommendations and to provide them with the resources and authorities they need to hasten the defeat of ISIS,” Davis said.
Since becoming the commander in chief, Trump has pledged to bring more force to bear on the Islamic State, whose de facto capital, Raqqa, is located in northern Syria. Several thousand U.S. allies — a group known collectively as the Syrian Democratic Forces — are engaged in an offensive to liberate the city.
Any large-scale deployment of conventional U.S. military forces would represent a marked departure from the strategy advocated by Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, who hoped instead to rely on small special forces teams to train and advise the patchwork of militias with a stake in the militant group’s defeat.
The battlefield there is complicated by several factors, not the least of which is Syria’s six-year civil war and the presence of Russian warplanes supporting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Additionally, Turkey has sizable combat elements on the ground fighting the Islamic State in and around al Bab, which is about 125 miles west of Raqqa. Last week, a Russian airstrike killed three Turkish troops in what Moscow has called a friendly fire incident.
The Turks, meanwhile, oppose Syrian Kurdish forces who have proven to be the most proficient and reliable U.S. ally in Syria. That polarizing dynamic has strained relations between Washington and Ankara in recent months.
It’s unclear how any additional U.S. ground troops would be put to work in Syria. American commanders have said there is an urgent need to liberate Raqqa, as intelligence has indicated ISIS militants there are actively plotting attacks on the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East and Europe.
The White House also indicated last month that it could task the military with establishing “safe zones” in Syria for the estimated 11 million refugees who’ve been forced from their homes as a result of the violence there.
That prospect, outlined in an early draft of the president’s controversial executive order seeking to ban migrants from seven countries with Muslim majorities, has proven exceedingly sensitive. Some estimates have suggested that to do so, the U.S.-led coalition would have to deploy upwards of 30,000 ground troops. Such a commitment could prove deeply unpopular both in the U.S. and overseas.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times’ senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre. Michelle Tan is Army Times’ editor. On Twitter: @MichelleTan32. Shawn Snow is Military Times’ Early Bird editor. On Twitter: @SnowSox184.