US to send 200 more troops to Syria to bolster Raqqa assault
The US defence secretary has announced that 200 more military personnel will be sent to Syria to strengthen the fight against Islamic State in its stronghold of Raqqa.
Speaking at talks on Middle East security, Ash Carter said Barack Obama had approved deployment of the extra troops, who would include special forces trainers, advisers and bomb disposal experts.
Three hundred US special forces are already in Syria working with a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters who are attempting to capture the city. The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) has been gaining ground in areas north of Raqqa, the caliphate’s Syrian capital. The US has mostly been supporting the effort through airstrikes.
Carter also made one of his most direct attacks yet on other Middle Eastern countries for not lending more military muscle to the fight against Isis while complaining about American efforts.
In a speech on Saturday at a security conference in Bahrain, Carter said the additional troops would “continue organising, training, equipping, and otherwise enabling capable, motivated local forces” to take the fight to Isis.
He went on to criticise America’s Middle East partners for failing to help in the broader campaign to defeat the group and counter-extremism. He suggested US politicians had been irritated by what he saw as disingenuous criticism from “regional powers here in the Middle East”.
Carter said: “I would ask you to imagine what US military and defence leaders think when they have to listen to complaints sometimes that we should do more, when it’s plain to see that all too often, the ones complaining aren’t doing enough themselves.”
He said it was not unreasonable for Washington to expect regional powers who opposed extremism in the Middle East to do more to help fight it, “particularly in the political and economic aspects of the campaign”.
Carter noted how many Sunni-led Gulf countries had expressed concern about the spread of Iranian influence in the region.
“The fact is, if countries in the region are worried about Iran’s destabilising activities – a concern the United States shares – they need to get in the game. That means getting serious about starting to partner more with each other, and investing in the right capabilities for the threat.”
He added that Russia, Syria’s main ally, had “only inflamed the civil war and prolonged suffering”.
Carter said Obama had approved the extra troop movements last week. It is thought they are needed in the urgent efforts to train Arab volunteers who are joining the Raqqa push.
“By combining our capabilities with those of our local partners, we’ve been squeezing Isis by applying simultaneous pressure from all sides and across domains, through a series of deliberate actions to continue to build momentum,” he said.
The military push is complicated by the role played by local Kurdish fighters, the most effective US partner against Isis in Syria, but who are viewed by Turkey, a US ally, as a terrorist threat.
Meanwhile, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, was in Paris on Saturday meeting European and Arab foreign ministers to discuss Syria, a conflict he described as the worst catastrophe since the second world war.
He was due to hold talks afterwards with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, a day after admitting to US embassy staff in Paris that he was “tired” of trying to negotiate with the Russians over the civil war in Syria.
“I know people are tired of these meetings. I’m tired of these meetings,” Kerry said. “And people are sort of: ‘Oh, another meeting. OK. This one will end the same way the other one did.’ I get it, folks. I’m not born yesterday. But what am I supposed to do? Go home and have a nice weekend in Massachusetts while people are dying? Sit there in Washington and do nothing? That’s not the way you do business.”
Kerry has struggled to make progress since Russia intervened militarily to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On Friday in Aleppo, pro-regime forces were claiming to occupy 85% of the city, much of which has now been reduced to ruins.
Lavrov announced on Wednesday a temporary “humanitarian pause” to the bombardment of Aleppo to allow civilians to leave, and on Thursday 10,500 fled the city. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said on Saturday that an estimated 100,000 people remained, squeezed into an “ever-shrinking” pocket of resistance to Assad’s forces and without access to food, water or medicine.
De Mistura said the expected government victory in Aleppo would not end the war, as has been predicted. “A serious discussion about the future political set-up of Syria” was the only way to achieve peace, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.