The first U.S. servicemember to die in the Syrian conflict was killed by a blast from an improvised explosive device northwest of the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
U.S. Central Command said the servicemember died near the town of Ayn Issa, about 30 miles north of Raqqa. It was the first U.S. military death in Syria since President Barack Obama decided last year to dispatch special operations troops to assist local groups fighting the Islamic State group. There are at least 300 U.S. special operators in Syria.
The name of the servicemember was not released.
“I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave servicemembers has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
When the White House announced its decision in October last year to send troops into the country, spokesman Josh Earnest said they would not have a combat mission, though he acknowledged they would be operating in dangerous territory. Rather, Earnest said, their job would be to support and beef up — or “train, advise, and assist,” as the Pentagon calls it — a coalition of local forces focused on pushing the Islamic State out of Syria.
The Islamic State took control of Raqqa, a city in northwest Syria, in early 2014 and has since used it as the de facto capital of the “caliphate” it hopes to create in the Middle East. Earlier this month, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition U.S. troops are supporting, announced a campaign to re-take Raqqa. Dubbed the “Wrath of the Euphrates,” the campaign was launched from Ayn Issa. The Pentagon says 30,000-40,000 local forces are participating in that offensive.
The White House has said it does not have plans to put large numbers of troops on the ground in Syria. Instead, the Obama administration is using special operations teams to enhance the abilities of local forces to defeat the Islamic State on their own.
The U.S. and its coalition partners are also using air power in the fight against the Islamic State. In a briefing earlier this month, Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said coalition air strikes have disrupted Islamic State supply routes around Raqqa. “They don’t have the ability to move large troop formations” anymore, Dorrian said. The strikes have made it “take longer for them to move and move around the battlefield,” he said.
Pentagon officials have said that the U.S. troops are assisting in conducting those airstrikes.