Votel: More conventional forces could be used to stabilize Syria
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 9, 2017
WASHINGTON — The general in charge of U.S. Central Command said Thursday that more conventional military forces might be needed in Syria in the future for stability operations.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel declined to discuss troop numbers and it was unclear whether any future decisions on stability forces would increase the total number of U.S. servicemembers now deployed in Syria to fight the Islamic State group.
About 500 special operators have been assisting local forces in Syria and in recent days a Marine artillery unit and a Stryker unit moved into the country in advance of an anticipated battle for Raqqa, the terrorist group’s center of power there, according to multiple news reports.
“I think as we move more towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations we will see more conventional forces requirements perhaps,” Votel said during testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Votel was responding to a question about the mix of special operations and standard military units in the fight, and said the decision on future troop levels will come down to decisions by ground commanders.
“We have become very comfortable and capable of operating together,” he said. “So, what I have pledged to our commanders and what I expect from them is for them to ask for the capabilities that they need and then for us to ensure we have the right command and control, the right force protection, the right resources in place to ensure that we can function properly together.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently delivered new military plans for defeating the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq to President Donald Trump, who has pledged to swiftly eradicate its thousands of extremist fighters there.
The administration of former President Barack Obama capped troop levels in Syria in an effort to avoid escalation after an eight-year ground war in Iraq, a move that rankled war hawks in Congress who believed it hobbled the war effort.
U.S. forces have been assisting Iraq in the brutal fight to recapture its northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State group and are now turning their attention on Raqqa, where a major offensive is expected.
This week, a Marine artillery unit was temporarily deployed to Syria to provide fire support to allies and more troops – less than 1,000 -- were gathering in Kuwait for a possible deployment, according to the Washington Post and The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the Army Stryker unit was sent with U.S. flags flying to the town of Manbij, Syria, where Army Rangers have been operating, according to the New York Times.
Votel said U.S. forces have been operating there for 6-7 months with the primary goal of reassuring allies and tamping down tensions between Turkey and Kurdish rebels.