- - Monday, November 7, 2016

Pentagon officials Monday brushed off fears that the small contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria supporting the fight against the Islamic State is in danger of becoming overstretched, despite the opening of a second front this week against the terrorist group in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

But intense Islamic State resistance is already slowing Iraqi and Kurdish units pushing into eastern and southern borders of Mosul, the Iraqi city that is the main target of the U.S.-backed assault. That resistance, coupled with the terrorist group’s fierce refusal to yield its last small holdings to U.S.-backed Libyan forces in Sirte, has led some to predict that local allies will need more U.S. troops in both countries to fully defeat the Islamic State. Pentagon officials have not completely taken that option off the table.

U.S. troop levels — and their roles in Iraq and Syria — have “been a key factor in our considerations going forward” in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Monday.

U.S. commanders continually assess the American footprint in Iraq as the siege of Mosul progresses and weigh changes to U.S. troop levels accordingly, said Mr. Cook. “The same kind of considerations have been made for Syria,” he said, noting that the 5,000 to 6,000 U.S. troops now deployed in both countries has been adequate thus far.

Iraqi Kurdish fighters exchanged heavy fire with Islamic State militants in a fierce fight to reclaim Bashiqa, a town east of Mosul, while Iraqi army forces were advancing on Hamam al-Alil, a town about 12 miles south of the heart of Mosul. Across the border, Kurdish-led Syrian fighters reported making advances in the villages north of Raqqa, with warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition providing air cover, The Associated Press reported.

On Sunday, 30,000 fighters from the Syrian Defense Forces — a coalition of Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish militias — backed by U.S. air power and military advisers on the ground, launched the operation to seal off and recapture Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Mr. Cook declined to comment on whether the Raqqa offensive would require additional U.S. forces in Syria. But the U.S. support in the battle for Raqqa would be markedly different from the approach taken by American commanders in Iraq, he said. For one thing, the Mosul campaign is led by the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, while the Raqqa fight is underway despite Washington’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down.

The ethnic militias in Syria operate much differently than government-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces, he said.

“What’s happening in Syria is different than what’s happening in Iraq, because we do not have a conventional military operating in Syria ,” Mr. Cook said. “You will not see a mirror image.”

Given the complications and the resistance put up by Islamic State fighters, administration officials acknowledge that victory in either Syria or Iraq will not come quickly or easily.

“They’re both phased operations. Nobody’s expecting an immediate liberation or victory here,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday. Slowly increasing the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, which has surged to over 5,000, was intended “to make sure that we could continue to support the Iraqis through the course of the operations in Mosul,” Mr. Cook said.

The final deployment of 615 American soldiers arrived in Iraq in October, weeks before the beginning of the Iraqi-led assault on the country’s second-largest city. Roughly 100 military advisers with U.S. special operations forces are embedded with Iraqi counterterrorism and Kurdish peshmerga units.

U.S. and coalition commanders now assess that 35,000 to 40,000 Iraqi troops and police will be needed to secure Mosul after the Islamic State is driven out, amid fears the city’s fall could lead to renewed sectarian strife among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds taking part in the mission. Training and equipping that kind of force would almost guarantee additional U.S. and coalition service members would be needed.

“We already know that there may be additional requirements for more trainers not only for Iraqi Security Forces, but particularly for local police and border forces,” as the fight for Mosul draws closer, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters late last month.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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