LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) — A couple hundred Marines have deployed into Syria with heavy artillery guns, as part of the ongoing preparation for the fight to oust the Islamic State group from its self-declared headquarters of Raqqa, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
Washington Post reported that the force is a part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Pendleton. They left San Diego on Navy ships in October.
The unit's ground force, the Washington Post reports, is Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. They "will man the guns and deliver fire support for U.S. backed local forces who are preparing for an assault on the city."
The deployment is temporary. But it is likely an early indication that the White House is leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility to make routine combat decisions in the IS fight. Military commanders frustrated by what they considered micromanagement under the previous administration have argued for greater freedom to make daily decisions on how best to fight the enemy.
The Marines moving into Syria are pre-positioning howitzers to be ready to assist local Syrian forces, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the deployment publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition, the U.S. is preparing to send hundreds of U.S. troops to Kuwait in order to be ready to join the Islamic State fight if they are needed, the official said. The number would be fewer than 1,000, the official said.
The latest troop movements come on the heels of the recent temporary deployment of some dozens of Army forces to the outskirts of Manbij, Syria, in what the Pentagon called a "reassure and deter" mission. Flying American flags and moving in large, heavily armored vehicles, the troops were there to keep a lid on tensions in the area, the Pentagon said.
It appeared the forces were largely there to insure that Turkish fighters and Syrian opposition groups focused on battling IS rather than each other.
Under the existing limits put in place by the Obama administration, the military can have up to 503 U.S. forces in Syria. But temporary personnel do not count against the cap. The movement of the Marines to Syria was first reported by The Washington Post.
Pentagon leaders sent a new plan to defeat IS to the White House late last month. It outlined a strategy that would likely increase the number of U.S. troops in Syria in order to better advise and enable the U.S.-backed Syrian fighters who will take on the battle for Raqqa.
The military has mapped out a series of options for the Syria fight, including increased artillery support, more Apache helicopters and a more robust training campaign.
U.S. officials say the battle for Raqqa will look much like the fight in neighboring Iraq, where local forces are in a fierce battle to retake the northern city of Mosul from IS. As troops were preparing to move into Mosul, the U.S. set up bases outside the city to use as logistical hubs and as locations for heavy artillery.
The moves to pre-position U.S. troops closer to the fight, so they can be tapped as needed, are the kinds of decisions that military commanders say they need to be able to make more quickly, without going to the White House every time for approval.