US Troop Buildup in Syria as Counterweight for Russian Presence
On April 25, US President Barack Obama approved a new deployment to Syria thus raising the number of special forces troops on the ground from 50 to 300.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the force arrived two days later at Rimelan airbase in the northeast part of the country. (Our military sources were the first to report the establishment of the American base in “First US Base in Syria: The Game Changer” in issue No. 698, issued December 11, 2015)
However, our sources say that a much larger force than the one announced by the president landed at the base. It is hard to determine the exact number since the troops flew in from Turkey on attack and transport helicopters. The majority of the sources monitoring the movements of armies within Syria estimate that there were 500 troops, double the amount announced by Obama. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that there are currently between 750 and 1,000 US troops in Rimelan. Since the only American aircraft at the base are attack helicopters, the force could potentially intervene in battles in northern, eastern or central Syria, if it receives orders to do so.
Thus, the number of US commandos in Syria is now believed to be about the same as that of Russia’s Spetsnaz special force in the country.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say that the US forces could be tasked with the following missions:
1. Ensuring US control of all Syrian territory east of the Euphrates river, as specified in the agreement between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin that identifies it as an American area of influence.
2. Ensuring US control over the situation in the Hassaka, Kobani and Afrin, the three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. The Obama administration needs this power in order to supervise and closely monitor the movements of the YPG Kurdish militia, which is ready to cooperate with the Americans but refuses to report its operational plans and the movements of its forces to US commanders.
3. Training of a Syrian Kurdish force established by the US military and the Syrian Democratic Forces, using several dozen military instructors. The US also supports two other Kurdish militias, the Sultan Ahmad Brigade and Corps No. 13.
4. To serve as a counterbalance to Moscow’s influence amid increasing reports that Russian helicopters and cargo planes are conducting airdrops of ammunition and supplies for Kurdish forces in the enclaves of Afrin and Kobani. The Russians and the Kurds strongly deny those reports, but the possibility of growing Russian military involvement among the Kurds led to Washington’s decision to increase the forces in Rimelan.
5. To avoid being caught off guard by a sudden Russian attack on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Such a possibility exists even though the city is located in the US area of influence under the Euphrates agreement, and Moscow promised not to take action against targets in the area without Washington’s approval.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources point out that the Obama administration has been hesitant until now to carry out attacks on Raqqa using local forces, mainly the Kurds, since nobody in Washington can say who will be in charge of the city after it is captured from ISIS. At this stage the Obama administration does not see any player in Syria who is ready and able to assume such a responsibility.