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US Airlifts Arabs, Kurds From Syria    03/23 06:11

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States is deepening its involvement in the war 
against the Islamic State group after an unprecedented American airlift of Arab 
and Kurdish fighters to the front lines in northern Syria, supported by the 
first use of U.S. attack helicopters and artillery in the country.

   The U.S. forces didn't engage in ground combat, but the offensive suggests 
the Trump administration is taking an increasingly aggressive approach as it 
plans an upcoming assault on the extremists' self-declared capital of Raqqa. In 
addition to using helicopters to ferry rebels into combat near the Tabqa Dam on 
the Euphrates River, the U.S. also flew two Apache gunships and fired Marine 
155mm artillery.

   "This is pretty major," Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led 
military coalition that is fighting the Islamic State militants in Syria and 
Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday. He said it was the first 
time U.S. forces have airlifted local fighters into combat in Syria. An 
undisclosed number of U.S. military advisers were inserted with the rebels.

   U.S. officials said the operation inserted Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters 
behind Islamic State group lines west of Raqqa, subjecting the American 
personnel to a degree of risk previously avoided in Syria. The mission was 
focused on recapturing the dam, the nearby town of Tabqa and a local airfield.

   By design, the operation is coinciding with a potentially climactic battle 
for Mosul, the main Islamic State group stronghold in Iraq. Together, the 
battles reflect a U.S. strategy of presenting IS with multiple challenges 
simultaneously.

   Scrocca said the assault in Syria is expected to last for weeks. He said the 
dam has been used as an IS headquarters, prison for high-profile hostages, 
training camp and location for planning overseas attacks since 2013. There has 
been concern IS might destroy the dam, flooding the region and creating new 
humanitarian challenges.

   The U.S. airlift, known in military parlance as an air assault, marked a new 
level of commitment to Syria's Kurds, whose partnership with the U.S. has 
prompted difficult discussions with Turkey. The U.S.-NATO ally sees the Kurdish 
fighters as a national security threat because of their links to militants 
inside Turkey.

   Scrocca said 75 to 80 percent of the Syrian fighters who were ferried to a 
landing zone south of the dam were Arabs. Kurds were among the remainder, he 
said, without offering numbers. Although the U.S. considers the Kurds the most 
effective partner in Syria, Washington has been careful not to inflame tensions 
with Turkey by providing them heavy weapons.

   The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed the U.S. airlift and said 
their fighters seized four villages south of the Euphrates and cut the main 
artery between Raqqa and northwestern Syria. Tabqa lies 45 kilometers, or about 
28 miles, west of Raqqa.

   In Washington, the U.S. hosted top officials from 68 nations for a meeting 
on accelerating the fight against IS in all its dimensions.

   Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the coalition's first ministerial 
gathering since President Donald Trump took office that the U.S. was still 
refining its strategy, but was clear about American priorities.

   "I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but 
defeating ISIS is the United States' number one goal in the region," Tillerson 
said.

   While that assessment appeared shared, some participants were hoping to hear 
more about strategy changes. As a candidate, Trump spoke boldly about 
overhauling former President Barack Obama's cautious approach to fighting IS. 
As president, Trump has moved more cautiously.

   At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told a Senate 
committee that the Trump strategy was still in "skeleton" form.

   "We're fleshing it out," he said. "It's an interagency-developed report, 
where it embraces economic, diplomatic, military, covert means. And we should 
have this done in the next couple of months, if that long. It may not even take 
us another month."

   Mattis and other officials have strongly suggested the plan will preserve 
the central feature of the Obama administration's approach, namely the idea of 
advising and enabling local forces to fight rather than doing it for them. But 
as IS appears to lose strength and territory in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. is 
likely to bolster its support and perhaps send small numbers of additional 
troops.

   The U.S. now has about 1,000 troops in Syria. It has at least 7,000 in Iraq.


(KA)

 
 
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