With the offensive to reclaim territory from the Islamic State largely stalled in Iraq, the Obama administration is laying plans for a more aggressive military campaign in Syria, where U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have made surprising gains in recent months.
The effort, which would begin by increasing pressure on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, marks an important shift in an administration strategy that for most of the past year has prioritized defeating the militant group in Iraq and viewed Syria as a place where there were few real prospects for battlefield success.
The White House’s top national security officials met last week and will convene again in the next few days to discuss ways to capitalize on recent and unexpected gains made by Syrian irregular forces. The administration is considering providing arms and ammunition to a wider array of rebel groups in Syria and relaxing vetting standards, effectively deepening America’s involvement in the ongoing civil war.
Such a move could lift some of the restrictions that have slowed the Pentagon’s troubled program to train Syrian fighters in Turkey and other sites outside Syria.
Rather than subjecting rebels to repeated rounds of screening before and during their training, U.S. officials might restrict vetting to unit leaders already in the fight. “The key thing is getting them some [expletive] bullets,” one U.S. official said.
The change is driven partly by frustration with the stalemated fight in Iraq, where an Iraqi army assault on Ramadi has ground to a halt and where a much-
anticipated offensive to reclaim Mosul, originally planned for this year, may come only after President Obama leaves office.
“We have opportunities now [in Syria] that we didn’t think we would have. We have an opportunity to push down on Raqqa,” said another U.S. official, speaking, like others, on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military operations. “We have an opportunity to take away the entire [Turkish] border from ISIS, and we didn’t think we would have that.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State.
The goal is to isolate Raqqa, the seat of Islamic State power, and prevent leaders there from sending fighters and resources between Syria and Mosul, the large Iraqi city controlled by the group.
Officials are hoping to replicate the success that Syrian forces, led by Kurdish units of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, had this summer dislodging the Islamic State from Tal Abyad and other areas close to Syria’s border with Turkey. That offensive put Islamic State militants on the defensive and hindered their ability to bring in new fighters and weapons from Turkey.
Officials said the White House may decide to provide weapons and equipment to the Syrian Arab Coalition — a grouping of several thousand fighters — in the country’s north. The hope is that the group will fight alongside Kurdish forces and push south from the Turkish border toward Raqqa.
If approved, the initiative would mark the first time the Pentagon has directly provided U.S. weaponry to armed groups within Syria beyond the fighters it has trained in Turkey. The CIA runs its own program to train and equip Syrian rebels.
Officials stressed that no decisions have been made and that the White House may continue the current approach in Syria, which includes a mix of airstrikes, direct backing for U.S.-trained rebels and indirect support for other forces.
Last week, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged that only “four or five” U.S.-trained fighters were actively fighting in Syria. Since then, an additional 71 have completed the U.S. training and were sent back into Syria, officials said.
Instead of trying to create entire formations, U.S. officials are considering preparing a smaller number of soldiers to call in airstrikes by U.S. fighter jets or coordinate ground attacks. Those troops would be inserted into existing units such as the Syrian Arab Coalition.
“While we are reviewing our efforts, it would be premature to speculate about any substantial changes to that program,” a senior administration official said.
The administration is also seeking to use Turkey’s decision to permit combat flights from Incirlik air base to help it seal off the remainder of the Turkey-Syria border.
The Ramadi assault has been slowed by defensive belts of buried bombs and the limitations of the Iraqi army, which is down to only a handful of the specialized teams capable of finding and clearing the explosives. One U.S. official said that only two such teams were still operating in the battle for Ramadi.
Iraqi troops haven’t been willing to take advantage of openings provided by American bombs, according to U.S. officials. Iraqi commanders have countered that U.S. air support is either insufficient or too slow. Iraqi forces in Ramadi have also been hindered by the deaths of two key commanders.
Obama has said that he would consider committing American Apache helicopters, which are vulnerable to ground attack, or embedding U.S. Special Operations forces advisers in Iraqi formations. Such troops could bring confidence, battlefield savvy and quick access to American air power to inexperienced Iraqi units.
So far, though, the Pentagon’s top generals, concerned that American combat losses could threaten support for the mission in Iraq, haven’t presented those riskier options to the president.
The options the White House is weighing in Syria would not put U.S. personnel at greater risk but would still come with potential pitfalls.
American-provided weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Increased support for Kurdish militia groups could also alienate Turkish allies whose top priority is ensuring that “no coherent Kurdish entity emerges on their border,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
A larger question is whether the increased support for Syrian rebels will produce any lasting gains. The Islamic State has been weakened by American airstrikes but remains a potent adversary, able to mount surge offensives, as it did recently in northwest Syria, said Oubai Shahbandar, a former Pentagon analyst. In the past year, it has also expanded into lightly defended areas such as Palmyra.
Even if the U.S.-backed rebels can make gains in Syria, a larger conventional army would be required to push the Islamic State from its strongholds in Iraq and prevent it from returning, U.S. officials said.
“There must be a viable ground force to fight, defeat and dislodge the Islamic State,” said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops from 2009 to 2011. “And the only real option is the Iraqi security forces.”
Liz Sly in Beirut and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Washington contributed to this report.