The United States will send 200 additional ground troops to Syria to assist Kurdish forces mobilizing for an offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Saturday.
Carter said the troops will join the 300 Special Operations forces already in Syria working to recruit, train, and advise local forces to combat the terrorist group, the New York Times reported.
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The Obama administration anticipates the reinforcements will help culminate "the full weight of U.S. forces around the theater of operations, like the funnel of a giant tornado," Carter said during remarks at an annual security gathering in Manama, Bahrain.
"By combining our capabilities with those of our local partners, we've been squeezing ISIL by applying simultaneous pressure from all sides and across domains, through a series of deliberate actions to continue to build momentum," he said, referring to the Islamic State.
ISIS militants on Sunday reconquered the ancient city of Palmyra, marking a major victory for the terrorist group after a series of defeats over the past year in both Syria and Iraq, the Guardian reported.
The jihadists successfully recaptured the city as Syrian and Russian forces were launching a major government offensive to retake the remaining rebel-held territories in Aleppo. ISIS first took Palmyra in May 2015, carrying out mass executions and destroying the city's historic sites before being forced out by Syrian government forces in March this year.
Khaled al-Homsi, an archaeologist from Palmyra who now lives in Turkey, told the Daily Beast that opposition and regime sources in the region said only 50 to 60 ISIS militants were besieging the city, which contains some 1,000 Syrian army personnel and up to 2,000 pro-Bashar al-Assad militiamen. Russian officers in Palmyra withdrew on Wednesday, followed by leadership of government forces, Homsi said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights pegged the number of jihadists in Palmyra at 200, but al-Homsi maintained the number was only a few dozen. He said government forces "just deserted" the territory as they did in 2015.
The Daily Beast reported:
A pro-regime source told the Daily Beast that the oil and gas fields were defended by the National Defense Force, a pro-Assad militia built and trained by Iran. "The NDF had over 800 men posted around the strategic Shaar gas field and the other areas, in addition to around 250 regular soldiers, the source said. "They had maintained defensive positions for the last 6 months. In August, operations had been stopped. When ISIS attacked days ago they retreated and left most of the heavy weapons without a fight. In the panic, over 100 were killed or are still missing. Word is that a senior NDF commander who was stationed around Shaar was bribed by ISIS. It is not the first time this has happened. A decision was made to prevent the city falling at all costs."
It is unclear whether pro-regime forces will move in force to again retake Palmyra while they remain focused on Aleppo. The loss of the city for a second time within two years raises questions about the strength of the Syrian military, which has been worn down during the nation's civil war, now in its sixth year.