U.S. Military Power in Syria May Increase by 1000 Troops as Russia Bombs ISIS

U.S. army vehicles drive north of Manbij city, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, March 9, 2017. Rodi Said/Reuters

The Pentagon has considered increasing the U.S. military presence in Syria by up to 1,000 troops as the international battle to oust the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, from their de facto capital of Raqqa heats up.

The U.S. has already deployed about 500 U.S. Special Operations forces, 250 Rangers and 200 Marines to Syria in order to bolster the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which liberated the northern Syrian city of Manbij from ISIS last year, according to The Washington Post. The city has become a symbol of the various lines of control that have emerged throughout Syria's six-year civil war as Moscow brokered an agreement earlier this month through which the SDF voluntarily conceded defense lines to the Russia-backed Syrian army.

Though the U.S. has not endorsed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both the SDF and Syrian army have sought to prevent further advances by ISIS and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. U.S. and Russian troops have patrolled neighboring areas in Manbij, maintaining an informal truce over their common interests. The escalation of U.S. troops, however, could signal that the U.S. was nearly ready to begin its SDF-led offensive east toward Raqqa—prompting a negative reaction from Russia and the Syrian government, which has called U.S. forces "invaders" because Washington neglected to formally coordinate with Damascus or Moscow.

Map showing areas of control in Syria as of February 28, 2017. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

Russian forces were also active in central Syria, conducting airstrikes in support of the Syrian army and its allies near Palmyra. The Syrian army, along with allied militias, ousted ISIS from the ancient city for the second time earlier this month and has continued to advance east toward the besieged city of Deir al-Zour. Much of the city was taken by rebel groups after mass anti-government protests became an armed struggle against Assad in 2011; it was taken by ISIS in 2014. ISIS has repeatedly attempted to take the bastion of government control held down by thousands of soldiers remaining in the city, but has been unsuccessful. The Syrian army's latest push, if successful, would relieve the entrapped forces.

The U.S., Russia and Turkey have all expressed the desire to oversee the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa, which would be a major blow to the group's already shrinking territorial claims. The group, which once claimed vast territory across Syria and neighboring Iraq, has almost completely been wiped out from its final Iraqi stronghold and largest city of Mosul as Iraqi troops, backed by the U.S., Kurdish forces and Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias rapidly advanced against the jihadists.