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Pentagon To Send Additional 250 Special Forces Troops To Syria


The Pentagon is sending about 250 more special operations troops to Syria, raising the total number to about 300. They will help Kurdish, Arab and other forces in the north of Syria in the battle against the Islamic State. We're going to hear more about this from NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in Washington and NPR's Middle East correspondent Alice Fordham in Beirut. Welcome to both of you.



MCEVERS: And Tom, let's start with you. Who are these American troops, and what specifically will they be doing?

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, most of these are special forces. They are called Green Berets, and they'll be training. They'll be advising and assisting the Syrian Arab forces, for the most part, in Northeast Syria. Right now they estimate there are anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Arab forces in the eastern part of Syria. They would like to get that number up to about 15,000.

Say - they say it's going to take quite some time, there've been roughly 50 Green Berets there over the past few months. They've been doing the same thing - training and advising. And they were key in taking this town of the Northeast called Shaddadi.

So the Pentagon hopes they can do more of that, they can work with them almost like a "Lawrence Of Arabia" kind of situation here. They will work with them, organize them, train them, provide them with weapons and then move into these towns - and the prize being Raqqah, which is the nominal capital of ISIS in the northeastern part of the country.

And then on the other side of the country along the western part, you have Russia providing quite a bit of help to the Syrian government, and they've been making a lot of gains as well.

MCEVERS: And Alice, what kind of gains are we talking about?

FORDHAM: Well, I think that Russia has made an enormous difference to Assad in the last six months or so. The end of last year, Assad was looking distinctly wobbly. His Russian support has really shored him up. But I think it's important to recognize in these recent battles, as in much of the fighting over the last few years, the focus has been on beating back the rebellions, beating back the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

The Russians and Assad have had some notable victories against ISIS, particularly really in the city of Palmyra. And from there, if that is their chosen strategy, they could move to the city of Deir ez-Zor, which is partly ISIS-held, or they could move on to Raqqah. But recently in recent weeks, the focus of their fighting has been against opposition forces.

MCEVERS: And Alice, just last month, you were in Northern Syria where these U.S. special forces troops are headed. What did the Syrians that you met there tell you about how they've been operating?

FORDHAM: Well, it was very interesting to hear Tom saying that the focus of these new forces that are coming in will be to recruit Arabs to work alongside the Kurds that are fighting against ISIS as they move into Arab areas because at the moment, the special forces have had quite a limited presence. Although I think it's been very useful in terms of training and helping, calling in airstrikes during the actual courses, the battle.

But it was interesting to talk to particularly people on the Arab side there about the meetings that they had been having with American officials. They wouldn't go into a lot of detail, but they felt and certainly they hoped that the Americans were building up a relationship with them that would continue for some time as they fight against ISIS in that area.

MCEVERS: I mean, Tom, let's step back for a second here. We've got American special forces on the ground, Kurdish fighters, Arab fighters, ISIS. We've got Al-Nusra, the Syrian regime all in this battle. How close is this conflict at all to any kind of resolution?

BOWMAN: It's nowhere near coming to any kind of resolution. And again, if the Syrian forces are pushing toward Aleppo, if the Russian artillery's moving up there - there've been some strikes in marketplace - if the special operators are going to be moving into the eastern part of the country, you're going to see a lot more fighting in the coming weeks, a lot more bloodshed and always civilian casualties. And you're going to see more people start heading for the exits up into the north, up into Turkey again. So yeah, this is going to go on and probably get a lot more bloody.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tom Bowman and Alice Fordham. Thanks to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

FORDHAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.