WASHINGTON — The United States is sending an additional 400 troops to Syria to help prepare for the looming fight for Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The increase, which includes a team of Army Rangers and a Marine artillery unit that have already arrived in the country, appears to represent a near-doubling of the number of U.S. troops in Syria.
The U.S. military had declined to say precisely how many troops it had deployed in the country. The formal troop cap for Syria is 503, but commanders have the authority to temporarily exceed that limit to meet military requirements.
The presence of the Rangers became apparent last weekend when they were seen driving around the northern Syrian town of Manbij in Stryker vehicles and armored Humvees. The Washington Post earlier reported the deployment of the Marine artillery battery.
“We are preparing logistical and fire support to enable a successful assault on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS,” said Col. John L. Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led command that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The mission of the additional troops will be to help Syrian fighters prepare for the offensive on Islamic State forces in Raqqa. They will provide artillery support, training and protection for improvised explosives, among other efforts, Dorrian said.
The decision to deploy artillery mimics the approach taken in Mosul, Iraq, where U.S. and French artillery have been supporting the Iraqi offensive to take the western half of the city.
In the case of Raqqa, the idea is that Syrian forces will do the bulk of the fighting on the ground but that Americans will assist them by providing advisers as well as firepower.
The Trump administration has yet to make clear which fighters will seize Raqqa. U.S. military commands favor a mixed force of Syrian Arabs and the Kurdish YPG militia. But Turkey has objected to arming the Kurds.
Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, alluded to the need for the reinforcements during a recent visit to the Middle East.
“I am very concerned about maintaining momentum,” he told reporters accompanying him on a trip to the region.