The Pentagon Ramps Up Its War in Syria With Marines and Artillery
Big guns aid Kurdish troops advancing toward Raqqa
by PAUL IDDON
The United States, feeling confident enough about its war on the totalitarian Islamic State, has upped the stakes by deploying a detachment of Marine artillery into Syria.
To be sure, U.S. troops are certainly in combat in Syria, although the deployment of artillery is a step further than Special Operations Forces working with local U.S. allies in the country. Commandos often travel in smaller numbers, can move faster and do not need as much security as artillery units.
But the U.S. government wants to wrap the war up as soon as possible, and the White House has apparently decided it’s willing to accept the additional risk. The Marines and their artillery are supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of some 50,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters advancing toward Raqqa, the Islamic State’s northeastern Syrian capital.
The city could be under siege “within a few weeks,” an SDF spokesman told Reuters.
Pentagon officials stated that the deployment of the troops and their 155-millimeter M-777 howitzers, summoned from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has “been in the works for sometime,” according to The Washington Post.
Be skeptical of timetables, which are always an uncertain matter in warfare. The battle for Mosul in Iraq has dragged on longer than officials estimated when the offensive began in October 2016, but chances are that the Islamic State will lose its main strongholds … eventually.
The Islamic State’s fighters must choose whether to die on the battlefield or go underground. The terror group has lost thousands of fighters, been forced from more than half of Mosul and was kicked out of the Syrian city of Al Bab by Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army Fighters in February 2017.
The SDF has made slower progress in Syria than the Iraqi Army has across the border. However, the SDF is not nearly as well-equipped as the Iraqis, making do instead with light arms, a handful of former Syrian regime tanks and — more recently — M1117 Guardian armored vehicles supplied by the coalition.
Meanwhile, in a highly visible — and deliberately visible — move, U.S. soldiers riding in Stryker armored vehicles flying American flags drove into the Syrian city of Manbij to prevent a clash between the SDF and the Turkish-backed FSA brigades.
Essentially, the U.S. military is replicating — on a smaller scale — its strategy in Iraq, where thousands of U.S. commandos, forward observers and artillery gunners are bolstering tens of thousands of local troops.
Despite Pentagon statements that Operation Inherent Resolve boils down to an “advise and assist” mission, the American troop footprint is considerably larger than that term implies. The actual number — including contractors — is unclear but could be around 8,000 in Syria and Iraq combined.
When including U.S. troops supporting the war from other bases in the Middle East, the total number could be roughly equivalent in size to the U.S. force in Afghanistan.
This is not the first time U.S. Marines have deployed artillery in the broader war. In late 2016, leathernecks shelled Islamic State positions along Iraq’s Makhmour front, which became a launching pad for the Iraqi Army’s push into Mosul.
The existence of the Marines’ outpost — first named the Fire Base Bell until the Pentagon switched the moniker to the more subtle “Kara Soar Counter Fire Complex”— was only revealed after an Islamic State Katyusha rocket hit the base and killed Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin in March 2016.
The Marines would later withdraw from Kara Soar, only for U.S. Army artillery crews to take their place.
By July, the Iraqi Army was making speedier progress, capturing the oil-rich town of Qayyarah south of Mosul. Islamic State set fire to the city’s oil facilities, badly polluting the town and blackening the skies with smoke.
Near Qayyarah, there sits a decrepit air base built by Saddam after the Six-Day War with Israel. It has since become an important logistics and fire support hub for the Mosul ground offensive. There the U.S. Army set up HIMARS artillery — which can hit targets approximately 300 miles away with satellite-guided rockets —to flatten Islamic State positions as the Iraqi Army approached the city.
After the operation for Mosul got underway, Iraqi troops captured the town of Hamam Al Alil, the site of a grisly mass grave. U.S. Army personnel moved in with M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzers — in which the soldiers live and sleep in around the clock — to shell targets in and around the Islamic State’s last urban stronghold in Iraq.
In Syria, as the SDF secures more territory, a similar strategy is now unfolding. Artillery can also react more quickly than warplanes, giving an edge during a rapidly evolving battle.
In October 2016, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the battles for the Islamic State’s two main cities will “overlap,” which is “part of our plan.”
If the final push on Raqqa is anything like Mosul, increased U.S. fire support may well give the SDF the extra push it needs — before the Islamic State can recover.