US prepares ground troops for Syria

The Pentagon is dispatching some 2,500 ground combat troops to a staging base in Kuwait, from where they are expected to be mobilized to back up forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The deployment includes elements of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, NC. About 1,700 troops from the same unit are already overseas, spread between Iraq and Kuwait. (Army Times, March 9) The US currently has only some 500 troops authorized to operate in Syria, predominantly Special Forces, and it is unclear if this new deployment breaches that threshold. However, the US Special Forces in Syria are increasingly tasked with keeping peace between Kurdish and Turkish forces rather than actually fighting ISIS. Special Forces are currently deployed at Manbij in what the Pentagon calls a mission to "reassure and deter"—interpreted as providing a buffer between Kurdish-led and Turkish-led forces, to prevent open conflict between them. (Military Times, March 6)

Speculation about the new deployment is fueled by reports in the Washington Post that the US intends to cut back support for Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in deference to NATO ally Turkey. The Pentagon is remarkably noncommittal when pressed for clarity. "Well actually, no decision's been made on that at this time," coalition spokesperson Col. John Dorrian said. "That's something that is being considered now in Washington, and we’ll have to see how that plays out. I've seen the same coverage that you have. That's as much insight as I have to offer." (Rudaw, March 2)

Tensions within the Kurdish forces themselves are also straining the coalition. Fighting broke out early this month in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq between the KDP-aligned Rojava Peshmerga and the PKK-aligned Shingal Protection Units, made up of Yazidis displaced from their homes in the area by ISIS. Both sides reported casualties around the town of Khanasur, with contradictory accounts regarding how the clashes erupted. (Rudaw, March 9)