The Pentagon Thursday denied the presence of U.S. troops on the front lines in Syria despite photographic evidence showing special operations troops fighting alongside Kurdish forces in an offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, maintained the Obama’s administration’s claim that ground troops in Syria are solely serving in advisory and assistance roles in the war-torn region.
"They are not on the forward line. They are providing advice and assistance," Cook said during a testy exchange with reporters. "That mission has not changed, their role has not changed. They are not leading this fight. They are supporting those forces that are at the leading edge of this fight, and they are doing it in a very effective fashion."
Near frontline north of the Islamic State bastion of Raqa city, in Syria an AFP photographer saw armed US soldiers https://t.co/V8YoWr2lSw
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 26, 2016
Agence France-Presse published photos earlier in the day purporting to show U.S. special operations forces riding in a pickup truck across a rural town less than 40 miles from ISIS’ de facto capital Raqqa. Some of the servicemen are shown wearing the insignia of the Kurdish YPG.
Cook refused to comment specifically on the photos.
"What I will say is that special operations forces when they operate in certain areas do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security… And they might be, again, for visual purposes, might be blending in with the local community," he said.
The AFP reported that U.S. commandos were seen climbing onto a rooftop "carrying U.S.-made anti-tank missiles." A fighter with the Syrian Democratic forces told the outlet that U.S. troops are taking part in the group’s operation against ISIS.
The revelations contradict the Obama administration’s insistence that ground troops are in Syria solely to advise and assist local forces.
Ahead of the president’s announcement last month that he would deploy an additional 250 special operations forces to Syria, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes reiterated that U.S. troops would not be acting in a combat role
"Obviously, any special forces troops that we deploy into Iraq or Syria are going to be combat-equipped troops," Rhodes said. "They’re not being sent there on a combat mission. They’re being sent there on a mission to be advising and assisting and supporting the forces that are fighting against ISIL on the ground."
One reporter pressed Cook to clarify the difference between a "forward line" and a "front line." He replied vaguely that he didn’t "have a yardstick measurement" and that the front lines of war are always "fluid."