WASHINGTON — American Special Operations forces and the Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters they are advising this week pushed closer to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Syria.
Defense Department officials confirmed that photographs taken by an Agence-France Presse photographer in the village of Fatisah that were released on Thursday showed American commandos, dressed in camouflage, assisting fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces during their offensive against the Islamic State north of Raqqa.
The United States has disclosed publicly that about 200 of its commandos and support personnel are on the ground in northern Syria, where they are working with the Syrian Arab and Kurdish partners. About 100 more are on the way.
Pentagon officials said the Americans were not involved in any combat role on the ground. A Syrian militia commander told the photographer that the American troops had fired missiles from the rooftop of a house to destroy a booby-trapped car in the village, a characterization that Pentagon officials challenged.
“We have been conducting advise-and-assist operations with elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces for many weeks,” Col. Steve Warren, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said in an email. “Nothing has changed in our relationships or our distance from the front lines of combat.”
Colonel Warren said the American commandos in the photographs were operating east of the Euphrates River, an area where he said Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters had been operating.
The Americans were equipped with their own side arms — standard issue for self-protection — and could be seen climbing into and driving in tan pickup trucks mounted with various weapons. A stubby gun shown in the photographs was an MK47 40 millimeter grenade launcher; a longer weapon seen was an M2 .50 caliber machine gun.
Several of the American troops were seen wearing patches with the United States flag, while others also wore the patches of the Syrian Kurdish and Arab units, a common practice among commandos as a sign of solidarity and partnership, Colonel Warren said.
The photographer told his agency that he saw as many as 20 American troops in Fatisah on Wednesday, and heard them speaking English to each other. The Americans refused to talk to the photographer, the agency said.
A Syrian opposition commander, whom the agency identified as Baraa al-Ghanem, told the photographer that American advisers were “present at all positions along the front.” About 25,000 Syrian Kurdish fighters and 5,000 Syria Arabs make up the opposition group the United States is supporting in eastern and northern Raqqa.
(via NY Times)