More U.S. troops might be needed in Syria to support local fighters on the ground battling ISIS near their capital of Raqqa, the top U.S. general for American forces in the Middle East told Congress Wednesday.
“We have recognized that as we continue to pursue our military objectives in Syria, we are going to need more direct all-weather fire support capability for our Syrian Democratic Force partners,” Gen. Joe Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said in front of the House Armed Services Committee.
The “all-weather fire support” that Votel is referencing is military parlance for artillery. While U.S. aircraft can fly in all kinds of weather, their ability to bomb ISIS targets is degraded when bad conditions hit. As a result, there are bad weather days when the U.S.-led coalition conducts very limited airstrikes against ISIS.
Asked about the danger of mission creep, Gen. Votel made it clear U.S. troops would be helping the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are made up of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters.
“We have not taken our eye off what our principle mission is, which is to advise and assist and enable our partners,” Votel said. “Help our partners fight, but not fight for them.”
Two U.S. defense officials tell Fox News that the Pentagon is looking at deploying more U.S. artillery units to Syria as the American-backed Syrian fighters edge closer to Raqqa.
There are roughly 1,000 U.S. special operations forces, Marines and Army Rangers in Northern Syria today, helping train and support a local force for the eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold.
Fox News is told the preliminary plans would have the Kurds surround Raqqa, and an Arab force would lead the assault into Raqqa.
Last week, U.S. helicopters airlifted hundreds of Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters 30 miles west of Raqqa in the ISIS-held town of Tabqa, where a strategic dam, airfield and town are located.
On Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, leading the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS from Baghdad, told Pentagon reporters the Tabqa airfield had been seized by the U.S.-backed Syrian force.
Votel also said Wednesday in front of lawmakers that Russia might be giving weapons to the Taliban to undermine the U.S. in Afghanistan. “I think that it’s fair to assume they may be providing some kind of support to them in terms of weapons or other things that may be there.”
He also said the official fight for Mosul, which started in October, has so far killed 774 Iraqi soldiers — and wounded some 4,600 others. “It is an extraordinary price that they paid for that.”
Earlier this month ISIS was estimated to have a force of 2,000 fighters in West Mosul — and up to 15,000 across Iraq and Syria, according to Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Baghdad.