- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Defense Department has ordered roughly 200 additional U.S. special operations troops into Syria to support the ongoing campaign to retake Islamic State’s so-called capital of Raqqa, driving the number of American forces in the the country to 500.

Nearly 300 American special operations advisers are already in the country, training and advising members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella coalition of Arab and Kurdish militia groups in the country picked by Washington to spearhead the assault on Raqqa.

The new U.S. special operations deployment to the country will “ensure the success of isolating Raqqa, generate sufficient local forces to seize

Raqqa, and deny ISIL sanctuary beyond Raqqa,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a regional security conference in Bahrain on Saturday.

“This latest commitment of additional forces within Syria is another important step in enabling our partners to deal ISIL a lasting defeat,” he told senior diplomats and defense leaders from across the Mideast and North Africa at the conference.

The deployment order, reportedly approved by President Barack Obama last week, will likely be one of the final decisions on the Syrian war made by the outgoing administration.

Since the beginning of the U.S.-backed offensive on Raqqa, Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, have closed to within 18 miles of the city, clearing a number of towns and villages previously under control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the Pentagon said late last month.

Neither Defense Department nor coalition commanders have been willing, thus far, to set a timeline for how soon SDF troops could breach Raqqa’s city limits.

The main mission for the Americans on the ground in Syria will likely be focused on maintaining the militias’ momentum and ensure those factions remain united in the push toward Raqqa.

“It’s a mess up there,” one U.S. defense official told The Washington Times last month, regarding the increasingly chaotic situation facing the U.S.-backed Syrian coalition moving on the ISIS capital.

To reduce that chaos, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel has lobbied the incoming Trump administration to retain the U.S. military training and advising program in the country.

On Saturday, Mr. Carter reiterated the concern that Islamic State’s fall in Iraq and Syria does not mark the end of the group’s ability to spread violence and terror elsewhere across the globe.

“The inevitable collapse of ISIL’s control,” in Iraq and Syria “will certainly put ISIL on a path to a lasting defeat,” Mr. Carter said, adding “there will still be much more to do after that to make sure that, once defeated, ISIL stays defeated.”

The fallout from Raqqa, as well as ISIS’s Iraqi capitol of Mosul, will be one of the early major military challenges for the Trump administration in the fight against the Islamic State.

But Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed to end all U.S. military efforts to back Syrian militias battling the Islamic State and those fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“My attitude was, you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria,” the president-elect said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

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