Big Changes And Major Dilemmas Loom In Next Phase Of ISIS War In Syria : Parallels The U.S. considers deploying hundreds more American troops to Syria in the final phase of the war against ISIS — one that could reshape borders and relationships in the Middle East.
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Big Changes And Major Dilemmas Loom In Next Phase Of ISIS War In Syria

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Big Changes And Major Dilemmas Loom In Next Phase Of ISIS War In Syria

Big Changes And Major Dilemmas Loom In Next Phase Of ISIS War In Syria

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

U.S. forces are playing a bigger and more direct role in the fighting in Syria. This week they have increased air strikes around the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. American special operations troops have rappelled out of helicopters along with local troops to begin an attack on a strategic dam held by ISIS. The Pentagon says a push to take the city of Raqqa is coming soon and the U.S. will play a key role. To talk more about that, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Hello.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And Middle East correspondent Alice Fordham, who is in Beirut. Hi there.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: All right, Tom, let's start with you. We are going to see more big U.S. operations in Syria. What is the plan?

BOWMAN: OK, what we're seeing is a more aggressive version, Kelly, of the Obama strategy. It's not really a new Trump plan. And it's worked with, trained, in some cases accompanied local rebels and had the U.S. serve as its air force. And along these more aggressive lines you're going to see two things pretty soon, I think. The U.S. plans to send in hundreds more trainers in special operations forces. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hasn't really signed off on that yet. And also, the U.S. will send weapons - small arms, heavy machine guns, tank rounds - to U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces for this final assault on Raqqa. And Kelly, that last part, supporting Kurdish forces, is a problem for America's ally Turkey. They see all these Kurds as terrorists. So a big question is how will Turkey react?

MCEVERS: And, Alice, I'll put that question to you. I mean, what's Turkey's plan?

FORDHAM: Well, I've spoken to a few people in Turkey and who analyze Turkey, and no one's exactly sure what the response would be. But Turkey has a number of options that could make these U.S.-led operations in Syria very difficult. So the most disruptive thing that they could do would be to stop the United States and its allies using an airbase called Incirlik in southern Turkey, which is where a lot of the planes in the anti-ISIS fight fly from. A less what you might call nuclear option and something they have done before is to use their own forces and their proxies inside Syria, some of which are themselves supported by the U.S., to attack these Kurdish-led factions.

That has already happened near a town called Manbij after it was retaken from ISIS. And when that happened, American forces actually intervened in support of the Kurdish ones. Now, what some analysts say is that a real risk for the United States as it upsets troop numbers in Syria is getting drawn into de-escalating feuds like this between different factions and regional powers.

MCEVERS: Right. I mean, Tom, there are a number of factions involved in Syria - right? - the Syrian government, also Russia, Turkey and Iranian-backed militias. I mean, many of these are not allied with the U.S. or with each other. How is the United States going to handle operating in such a complicated environment as it goes after Raqqa?

BOWMAN: You know, Kelly, that's a key question that people are looking at right now. Now, officials, of course, have talked about possible safe zones for civilians. And just yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised what he called zones of stability once ISIS has been cleared. But there are also discussions about how do you separate these warring parties that you just mentioned? Now, you do have what you might call zones of interest, such as the Americans and its rebels around Raqqa, the Russians and the Syrians around Aleppo and let's say Palmyra. Basically, each side has a section they're responsible for. No decisions on that yet, but that's something they're talking about.

MCEVERS: Does that mean the Trump administration is going to be committed to the area around Raqqa long-term? I mean, something the Obama administration was loath to do.

BOWMAN: Well, clearly what I'm hearing is the U.S. will likely be part of any hold force around Raqqa once ISIS is pushed out. Now, they could be on the outskirts of the city and you could see local forces actually patrol inside the city and, of course, police. But yeah, you're looking at what will likely be a U.S. presence in Syria for some time. And clearly next door in Iraq we're going to see thousands of U.S. troops. They've already talked about a more permanent presence in Iraq.

MCEVERS: Alice, do we have any sense of how this ramping up of military action around Raqqa is impacting the people there?

FORDHAM: Sure. We've been able to reach people who have relatives in the area. Tom, you mentioned attacks on bridges. The coalition actually says that over the course of its air strikes on Raqqa they have destroyed 18 bridges over the river Euphrates, which is designed to restrict the movement of ISIS. But people there say, I mean, that it's very difficult for them to flee. What they see is a significant uptick in air strikes that is causing civilian deaths and injuries.

MCEVERS: NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut and Tom Bowman at the Pentagon. Thanks to both of you.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEIA SONG, "ELECTROMANA")

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