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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Syrian Democratic Forces fighters sit on a vehicle in the north of Raqqa city, Syria. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    The United States, Turkey, and Russia have deployed forces to fight against the Islamic State in a run-up to the final battle for Raqqa. But no one has made a definitive move.

    We’ve touched on Syria before, but this is because the battle for the ISIS heartland is complicated by geography and conflicting interests of regional and international actors.

    These three maps show the complexity of this battle and why it will be a marathon rather than a sprint.

    ISIS Lost Territory That’s Not Strategically Vital

    The Islamic State has maintained control of Raqqa and surrounding areas along the Euphrates River since 2013.

    Screen Shot 2017 03 16 at 12.01.03 PM

    However, in the past year, ISIS lost a lot of territory to the east, west, and north as part of Operation Euphrates Wrath, led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

    ISIS is now effectively surrounded on three sides by regional powers supported by international powers. In spite of that, most of that territory was not strategically important.

    Now, IS faces existential threats to its power. But a final blow can only be struck with a cohesive plan of attack and a strategy for maintaining the territory post-ISIS.

    An Assaulting Force Can Expect a 50% Casualty Rate in Raqqa 

    The fight for the ISIS stronghold will require large numbers of ground troops in concert with air power and artillery. Fighting in a city with a large civilian population means a very high casualty rate for the assaulting force.

    It is slow, dangerous work that must be done block by block rather than in large-scale air attacks. For example, some of Iraqi’s divisions suffered casualty rates up to 50% while fighting in the city.

    Before we can discuss the battle for Raqqa, it is vital that we look at the city itself and routes running to and from the de facto ISIS capital.

    The map below shows the main roads around ISIS core turf with the capital in the middle. Raqqa is located on the Euphrates River surrounded on all sides by desert.

    Screen Shot 2017 03 16 at 12.01.58 PM

    In 2012, the civilian population totaled about 200,000. Raqqa has been the capital of the IS heartland since 2013.

    Because ISIS essentially is fighting on its home turf, it has established defenses around the city and is aware of likely attack routes. This is why an invading force must match its relative gains to expected losses.

    But there’s another issue.

    Conflicting Interests of Regional and International Powers

    Many regional and international actors have conflicting goals in Syria.

    We’ve discussed Turkey at length before, but the Turkish imperative is to halt the threat from the Islamic State while suppressing the Kurds. The Turks also are trying to limit their direct exposure to the conflict by supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

    The US has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces throughout most of the conflict. But the group has outlived its utility in the face of the Turks, who are pushing the Kurds back to the eastern side of the Euphrates.

    This takes the Kurds out of the lead for the assault on Raqqa.

    Russia has brought both air power and ground troops into Syria to support the Bashar al-Assad regime, but those troops lack the military capability to lead the charge.

    Russia’s forces in Syria were meant to prop up the Assad regime and were successful in doing so. But those forces are not significant enough to be decisive against IS.

    Ultimately, the battle for Raqqa is a series of simple questions: Who will go in? Where will they come from? How will they get out? And who will remain?

    The map below shows the four main routes we spotted as viable for an attacking force.

    Screen Shot 2017 03 16 at 12.03.29 PM

    The Syrian Democratic Forces can advance from its territory in the northeast (from Hasakah across the Euphrates to Deir el-Zour), though the Turks do not want any Kurdish forces to enter the city.

    The Cost of This Fight Will Be Enormous

    At the end of the day, the deciding factor in the battle for Raqqa is the relative strength of the approaching army rather than the route they use.

    The below graph shows the estimated power of forces in the area:

    Screen Shot 2017 03 16 at 12.04.14 PM

    The largest force is the Syrian Arab Army to the west and northwest, with about 70,000 troops. The Syrian Democratic Forces to the northeast is estimated at 55,000–80,000 soldiers, though they are constrained by Turkish ambitions.

    Russia has deployed an additional 10,000–15,000 troops. Turkey commands an estimated 8,000 troops that include the FSA. The US has about 1,400 special operators in the battlespace to act in an advisory and assistance capacity.

    Though actual numbers for ISIS are unknown, we estimate that 10,000–15,000 IS fighters are in Raqqa. Though ISIS troop numbers are lower, its entrenched position in the city’s center and fighting experience give it an advantage over any force that will mount an attack.

    Regardless of relative troop size, defenses, and civilian population—as we’ve discussed before—the cost of clearing ISIS from its core turf will be very high for whichever force attacks the city.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin receives a letter of credence from Israeli ambassador to Russia Gary Koren during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

    MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Israel's Ambassador to Moscow to protest an Israeli military strike near the Syrian city of Palmyra, news agency Interfax quoted a ministry official as saying on Monday.

    Ambassador Gary Koren was called for discussions at the ministry last Friday, the official said.

    Last week Syria's army high command said Israeli jets had breached Syrian air space and attacked a military target near Palmyra, in what it described as an act of aggression that aided Islamic State.

    (Reporting by Andrey Ostroukh; writing by Alessandra Prentice)

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    Russian Cossack commander Vladimir Bagliy shows a local newspaper with a picture of his fellow Cossack Yuri Sokalsky (R) killed near the Syrian city of Palmyra, in the Black Sea town of Gelendzhik, Russia, March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

    GELENDZHIK, Russia (Reuters) - Russia's force in Syria has suffered losses since late January more than three times higher than the official toll, according to evidence gathered by Reuters, a tally that shows the fight in Syria is tougher and more costly than the Kremlin has disclosed.

    Eighteen Russian citizens fighting alongside Moscow's allies, the Syrian government forces, have been killed since Jan. 29 -- a period that coincided with intense fighting to recapture the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group.

    The Russian defense ministry has publicly reported only five servicemen's deaths in Syria over the same period, and its officials' statements have not mentioned any large-scale Russian ground operations in the fight for Palmyra.

    Military casualties abroad are not as politically sensitive in Russia as in some other countries but send a negative message ahead of a presidential election next year which is expected to give President Vladimir Putin a fourth term.

    The toll was revealed in interviews with relatives and friends of the dead men, cemetery workers, local media reports of funerals and evidence collected by a group of investigative bloggers, Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT).

    In each case, Reuters has independently verified information about the death by speaking to someone who knows the dead man.

    The casualties since the end of January represent one of the highest tolls for the Russian contingent in Syria since the start of Moscow's military intervention 18 months ago.

    An official with the Russian foreign ministry referred questions about them to the defense ministry. The Russian defense ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about the casualties and about military operations in Syria. The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Most of the dead were not regular Russian soldiers but Russian civilians working as private military contractors under the orders of Russian commanders. Moscow has not officially acknowledged the presence of the contractors in Syria.

    One of the 18 men killed was Yuri Sokalsky, a 52-year-old from the Russian Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik who, according to a person close to him, signed up to go to Syria in January with a group of private contractors.

    In one of his last phone calls home, the person close to him said, he expressed surprise at the large numbers of Russian contractors being despatched to Syria, and relayed what he had been told about the intensity of the combat.

    "Out of every 100 people, 50 are coming back in caskets,"

    the person recalled Sokalsky as saying. The person asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions for revealing information that is sensitive for the Russian authorities.

    A Russian military vehicle drives near ruins in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/Files

    Symbolic city 

    On March 14 last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial drawdown of Russian forces in Syria, saying their mission had, "as a whole, been fulfilled." The fight for Palmyra this year tells a different story.

    The 18 fatalities documented by Reuters include the five regular soldiers whose deaths were announced by the defense ministry, four private military contractors in one unit killed on the same day, seven other such contractors, and two regular soldiers whose deaths the defense ministry has not announced.

    The period examined by Reuters coincided with the start of a major Russian deployment to the area around Palmyra, according to several people close to the dead fighters.

    Several relatives of people killed in Syria said they had received phone calls from people involved in recruiting private military contractors warning them not to speak to media.

    Out of the 18 dead, at least 10 were killed in the region of Palmyra, which Islamic State fighters seized in December for a second time in a year - a major reversal for Syrian government forces and their Russian backers.

    On Jan. 10, Sokalsky, a land mine specialist, left his home in Gelendzhik and set off for Rostov, in southern Russia, to join a group of private contractors being despatched to Syria.

    On his one previous tour to Syria, only fighters over 35 were being hired, selected to carry out specialist technical roles or train Syrian units rather than for out-and-out combat.

    "This time they were taking everyone," said the person close to Sokalsky.

    Two official documents seen by Reuters show that on Jan. 31, Sokalsky died from shrapnel injuries in Tiyas, in Syria's Homs province about 60 km west of Palmyra. Three other members of his unit, all private military contractors, were killed the same day, according to relatives, friends and cemetery officials. They were Alexei Nainodin, Roman Rudenko, and a third man whose name Reuters was not able to establish.

    Another private military contractor, Dmitry Markelov, was also killed at Tiyas, site of the Syrian military's T4 air base, on Jan. 29, according to people close to him.

    Four regular Russian servicemen were killed in the same area on Feb. 16, Russian state media cited a defense ministry statement as saying. The soldiers, described by state media as "advisors" to the Syrian military, were not named. A fifth regular serviceman, Artyom Gorbunov, was killed near Palmyra on March 2, state media quoted the ministry as saying.

    A further eight members of the Russian contingent were killed since the end of January at unknown locations in Syria, the evidence gathered by Reuters showed.

    They were contractors Konstantin Zadorozhny, Ivan Slyshkin, Vasily Yurlin, Alexander Sagaydak,  Alexander Zangiyev, and Alexander Tychinin, and regular Russian soldiers Igor Vorona, and Sergei Travin.

    Local media reports and social media posts point to more Russian deaths in Syria since the end of January than the 18 casualties, but Reuters has not been able to verify that information independently. 

    (Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in AMMAN, Thomas Perry and Angus McDowall in BEIRUT, and Joseph Nasr in BERLIN; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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    FILE PHOTO: Graffiti sprayed by Islamic State militants which reads

    CAIRO (Reuters) - As Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group which once held territory amounting to a third of those countries is turning to sabotage to ensure its enemies cannot benefit from its losses.

    As the Syrian army and allied militias advanced under heavy Russian air cover on the ancient city of Palmyra three weeks ago, Islamic State leaders ordered fighters to destroy oil and gas fields.

    "It is the duty of mujahideen today to expand operations targeting economic assets of the infidel regimes in order to deprive crusader and apostate governments of resources," an article in the group's online weekly magazine al-Nabaa said.

    The strategy poses a double challenge to Baghdad and Damascus, depriving their governments of income and making it harder to provide services and gain popular support in devastated areas recaptured from the militants.

    The March 2 article said operations by Islamic State in the area around Palmyra "prove the massive effect that strikes aimed at the infidels' economy have, confusing them and drawing them ... into battles they are not ready for."

    It's not just oil wells the group has targeted. Twice in the last two years it has taken over Palmyra, about 200 km (130 miles) northeast of Damascus, and both times destroyed priceless antiquities before being driven out.

    A Syrian antiquities official said earlier this month that he had seen serious damage to the Tetrapylon, a square stone platform with matching structures of four columns positioned at each corner. Only four of the 16 columns were still standing.

    In their earlier occupation of the city, the militants ruined an 1,800-year-old monumental arch and the nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin.

    However, the article in al-Nabaa suggested Islamic State sees the destruction of tangible economic assets as a greater weapon against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority.

    "In the first days of the second conquest of Palmyra, where fighters secured the city and other vast areas to the west that include the Alawite regime's last petrol resources ... the Alawite regime and its allies rushed to the depth of the desert to reclaim them," Islamic State wrote.

    "But the caliphate's soldiers had beaten them to the punch and destroyed the wells and refineries completely so that their enemies could not gain from them and so that their economic crisis goes on for the longest time possible."

    oil wells isis iraq

    'Mass destruction policy'

    Islamic State, which declared a caliphate across large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, has lost much territory and many fighters as it comes under attack from a U.S.-backed Iraqi offensive in Iraq and three separate ground forces in Syria.

    Iraqi troops have recaptured most of Mosul, the largest city to be taken by the group and the base from which its leader proclaimed the caliphate. In Syria, the group has lost Palmyra and its main stronghold, Raqqa, is surrounded.

    As well as destroying resources before they pull out, the militants have stepped up insurgent attacks in areas beyond their control, especially in Iraq.

    "Any harm to the economic interests of these two governments will weaken them, be it an electricity tower in Diyala, an oil well in Kirkuk, a telecommunications network in Baghdad, or a tourist area in Erbil," the article in al-Nabaa said.

    It said those attacks would further stretch the group's enemies by forcing them to defend economic interests, weakening their readiness for the battles to come.

    Islamic State has caused about $30 billion in damage to Iraqi infrastructure since 2014, an adviser to the Iraqi government on infrastructure told Reuters.

    "Daesh has used a mass destruction policy on factories and buildings with the aim of causing as much economic harm to Iraq as possible," said Jaafar al-Ibrahimi, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

    "Over 90 percent of infrastructure that has come under their hands was destroyed. Daesh burned all oil wells in the Qayyarah field south of Mosul."

    They also destroyed sugar and cement factories and transported the equipment to Syria, he said.

    In Syria, the militants destroyed over 65 percent of the Hayan gas plant, the country's oil minister told the state news agency. The Hayan field, in Homs province where Palmyra is located, produced 3 million cubic meters of natural gas per day. 

    (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Trevelyan)

    SEE ALSO: Russia underreported its amount of casualties in the fight to recapture Syria's Palmyra

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    Rex Tillerson

    The United States on Wednesday urged coalition partners to step up efforts to defeat Islamic State militants as top officials from 68 nations gathered in Washington to assess the fight to retake Iraq's second largest city and advance on the extremists' self-declared Syrian capital.

    "I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States' number one goal in the region," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the coalition's first ministerial gathering since President Donald Trump took office.

    "As we've said before, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand," Tillerson said.

    Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were hosting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Ababi and foreign ministers from the coalition partners at the State Department to explore new ideas to expand the fight against IS in the Iraqi city of Mosul and ready the operation to push the militants from Raqqa, Syria.

    They also are preparing for the group's defeat by lining up humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.

    "We are at the stage of completely decimating Daesh," al-Abadi said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

    The meeting occurred amid the latest manifestation of the accelerating, U.S.-guided military campaign. The Pentagon said it provided an airlift for Syrian fighters taking part in an offensive underway in Tabqa, west of Raqqa. A spokesman said U.S. military advisers are on the ground in the Tabqa area to help coordinate the operation, which aims to block IS fighters from western approaches to Raqqa.

    Syria map march 2017

    Tillerson alluded to the intensified campaign, but said the Trump administration was still refining its strategy.

    "A more defined course of action in Syria is still coming together," he said. "But I can say that the United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaida and will work to establish interim zones of stability, through cease-fires, to allow refugees to return home."

    The reference to "zones of stability" appeared to stop short of "safe zones," which the U.S. military has been extremely reluctant to commit to enforcing in Syria, even as Trump and others have raised the idea at various times.

    Nothing Tillerson outlined departed significantly from the Obama administration's approach, which focused on using local forces to retake territory along with efforts to disrupt IS recruitment and financing, and the blueprint of the multilateral effort seemed unchanged. The strategy is complicated in Syria, where a partnership with Kurdish forces has prompted difficult discussions with Turkey, which sees the militants as a national security threat.

    Tillerson said the United States would play its part and pay its fair share of the overall operation. But he said other nations, particularly those which have faced IS or IS-inspired attacks, must do more. He said increased intelligence and information sharing could overcome traditional rivalries between difference agencies and governments, and advocated an enhanced online effort to halt the spread of extremist views, especially as the Islamic State group loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

    operation inherent resolve

    As IS becomes more encircled, the mission will change. Officials expect in the coming months to see the dissipation of surviving fighters into underground cells that could plan and mount attacks throughout the Middle East, South and Central Asia, Europe, South America and the United States.

    "As we stabilize areas encompassing ISIS's phony physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, we also must prevent their seeds of hatred from taking root elsewhere," Tillerson said. "We must ensure ISIS cannot gain or maintain footholds in new regions of the world. We must fight ISIS online as aggressively as we would on the ground. A digital caliphate must not flourish in the place of a physical one."

    The officials in Washington also hope to figure out how best to deal with the inevitably messy humanitarian and political aftermath of the anticipated IS battlefield defeat. There are widespread fears of chaos, such as what emerged after NATO's intervention in Libya in 2011, that could further fracture the region's deep ethnic and religious splits, and complicate the stated goal of preserving the Syrian and Iraqi states.

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    USMC artillery ISIS

    The offensive to destroy ISIS in Syria took a big step forward recently with US military advisers, helicopters, and artillery helping position a force of about 500 soldiers near a strategic damn outside of Raqqa, ISIS's Syrian capital. 

    The US military, along with Kurdish forces and the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Foces rebel group, have moved to put a stranglehold on Raqqa with shelling, air support, and ground forces at the last route in and out of the city, according to a press release

    Operation Inherent Resolve, the 68-nation mission to destroy ISIS, flew in fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed rebel group, behind enemy lines to a strategic dam.

    “It takes a special breed of warrior to pull of an airborne operation or air assault behind enemy lines,” Col. Joe Scrocca, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve told the Times.

    "Seizing Tabqah Dam will isolate Raqqah from three sides and give the SDF the strategic advantage and launching point needed for the liberation of the city," said the release. But while the US says they're mainly backing local forces, they seem poised to take on a more active role with conventional forces fighting ISIS on the ground in Raqqa.

    The Pentagon has been considering sending as many as 1,000 ground troops to help take back Raqqa from ISIS, which would signal a reversal of the Obama-era policy to fight ISIS via train and equip methods and airstrikes.

    The coalition says they've conducted more than 300 airstrikes around Raqqa in the past month.

    Raqqa, situated along the Euphrates river in the mostly barren Easter Syria has been ISIS' main Syrian stronghold since 2014.

    The US, Inherent Resolve coalition partners, and local forces have been involved in a massive air and ground campaign to rid the country of the terrorist group while simultaneously carrying out similar operations in neighboring Iraq. 

    Syria map march 2017

    A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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    mattis

    Top Pentagon leaders are warning that the long war is going to get even longer.

    Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford told Senate leaders on Wednesday that even after ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq, US troops will be stationed in the region for at least a few years afterward.

    "I believe it’s in our national interest that we keep Iraqi security forces in a position to keep our mutual enemies on their back foot,” Mattis told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Defense. "I don’t see any reason to pull out again and face the same lesson," he added, referencing the removal of all US forces from Iraq in 2011.

    Though President Barack Obama in 2008 campaigned on a promise to pull troops out of Iraq, the move has been criticized by conservatives in the years since as helping fuel the rise of ISIS.

    In 2014, as ISIS militants seized vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, one senior military officer told Business Insider the rise of the terror group in the wake of US troop departures was inevitable.

    "We said we won some success but this is reversible," the retired senior U.S. military officer said, on condition of anonymity. "So what we're seeing now is exactly what we forecasted."

    So far, Mattis seems more comfortable placing troops closer to harm's way than his predecessor. Though the Pentagon has long downplayed the role of US ground troops in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, recent deployments of many more "boots on the ground" suggest they may be front-and-center in the coming months.

    Close quarters combat rehearsal

    In addition to roughly 500 US special operations forces, the military has sent conventional ground troops inside Syria, to include a contingent of Army Rangers, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, and artillerymen from 1st Battalion, 4th Marines to provide fire support just 20-30 miles from Raqqa, the ISIS capital.

    "The Iraqi security forces will need that kind of support for years to come," Dunford told the Senate committee.

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    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand with their weapons north of Raqqa city, Syria March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    PARIS (Reuters) - A battle against Islamic State to recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa is likely to start in the coming days, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday.

    "France has always said that Raqqa was a major objective," Le Drian told CNews television station. "Today, one can say that Raqqa is encircled, that the battle for Raqqa will start in the coming days."

    "It will be a very hard battle, but a battle that is going to be of utmost importance," he added.

    Earlier this week, the U.S. Pentagon department had said that the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State had for the first time airdropped local ground forces behind enemy lines near the ISIS-held town of Tabqa in northern Syria, opening up a new front in the campaign to recapture Raqqa.

    (Reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; writing by Sudip Kar-Gupta; editing by Ingrid Melander)

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    us special forces raqqa syria

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The deepening U.S. military involvement against Islamic State militants in northern Syria indicates the Pentagon will likely send even more troops in coming weeks.

    Their mission won't be to fight on the front lines but to bolster Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces in a coming battle for the key city of Raqqa.

    On Wednesday, the Pentagon disclosed that Marine pilots airlifted scores of Syrian partner forces to the front lines, kicking off an offensive designed to capture a strategic crossroad along the Euphrates River.

    It was the first such U.S. assistance to the Arab and Kurdish fighters comprising the Syrian Democratic Forces. In a support role, the U.S. also fired artillery and flew Apache attack helicopters for the first time in Syria.

    U.S. officials reported no major developments on the ground Thursday. Resistance from Islamic State fighters appeared less fierce than anticipated, said one official, who wasn't authorized to publicly discuss an ongoing operation and demanded anonymity. The U.S.-backed forces said in a statement they had already secured some territory.

    "It has become a military base to launch our operations on the west bank of the river until eventually liberating all the countryside of Raqqa," the statement said. Raqqa is the Syrian city that IS has called the capital of its self-declared caliphate. Tabqa lies 45 kilometers, or about 28 miles, west of the city.

    The U.S. troops haven't engaged in ground combat. But the new offensive suggests the Trump administration is taking an increasingly aggressive approach as it plans an assault on Raqqa.

    m-777 howitzer

    But the moves on Tabqa Dam, as well as the town by the same name and a nearby airfield, also highlight an unresolved U.S. dispute with Turkey over which Syrian forces should participate in the operation to recapture Raqqa.

    Turkey, a longstanding U.S. ally in NATO, strongly opposes the Kurdish role because Ankara considers the main Kurdish fighting force, known as YPG, a terrorist organization. Washington, however, sees the YPG as an effective battlefield partner. As recently as this week, U.S. officials said some Kurds would inevitably be part of the Raqqa offensive, although the Pentagon was still holding out hope of reaching an accommodation with the Turks.

    Col. Joseph Scrocca, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition that is fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that the Tabqa operation was large and likely would last for weeks. He would not say how many U.S.-allied fighters are involved.

    By design, the operation coincides with a potentially climactic battle for Mosul, the main Islamic State group stronghold in Iraq. Together, the battles reflect a U.S. strategy of presenting IS with multiple challenges simultaneously. Although Mosul and Raqqa are easily the two most important IS holdings, their recapture by U.S.-backed local forces is not expected to mark the complete collapse of IS as an international threat.

    File photo: A U.S. soldier from the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division stands guard at a military base north of Mosul, Iraq, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

    After taking office, President Donald Trump instructed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to coordinate a new counter-IS strategy. As a presidential candidate, Trump had promised to quickly defeat the group, saying at one point during the campaign that he had a secret plan.

    At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Mattis said the strategy was still in "skeleton" form.

    "We're fleshing it out," he declared, saying it would include economic, diplomatic, military and covert efforts.

    Mattis and other officials have strongly suggested the plan will preserve the central feature of the Obama administration's approach: Advising and enabling local forces to fight rather than doing it for them.

    But as IS loses strength and territory in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. is likely to bolster its support and send some additional troops. Officials have said the new deployment of U.S. forces would probably be small, however.

    The U.S. currently has about 1,000 troops in Syria. It has at least 7,000 in Iraq.

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    israeli air force formation blue flag israel

    After Syrian forces fired missiles at Israeli jets returning from airstrikes in the country's ISIS-held eastern side, Syria reportedly issued a stern warning to Israel through their Russian allies — more airstrikes will be met by Scud missile fire in return.

    "Despite a 6-year war Syria is not weak and knows how to defend itself,” a Saturday-evening post in Lebanon's Al-Diyar newspaper said, according to The Jerusalem Post.

    At the time of the most recent airstrikes, Syria described them as an act of aggression that helped ISIS. 

    But Syria's several-generations-old Scud missiles don't pose a real military threat to Israel, which employs some of the best missile defenses in the world. 

    Israel has infrequently carried out airstrikes in Syria, where Iranian-aligned and anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah operate. 

    "When we know about an attempt to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah, we do whatever we can to prevent this from happening, provided we have sufficient information and capabilities to react," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of Israel's incursions into Syria, according to Russian state-run media. 

    SEE ALSO: US forces went behind enemy lines in Syria to cut off ISIS' only escape route

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    Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

    (Reuters) - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Reuters on Tuesday that Russia could use Iranian military bases to fight terrorists in Syria on a "case by case basis."

    Zarif said that regional issues, including Syria, would be discussed at a meeting in the Kremlin later on Tuesday.

    An Iranian delegation, including President Hassan Rouhani, arrived in Moscow on Monday. 

    (Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Kevin O'Flynn; editing by Andrew Osborn)

    SEE ALSO: Watch a US-led airstrike destroy part of ISIS' arsenal in the terror group's shrinking Iraqi stronghold

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    US-made armoured vehicles bearing markings of the US Marine Corps on a road north of Raqa in northern Syria as clashes region in the area between US-backed forces and Islamic State group jihadists

    Tabqa Dam (Syria) (AFP) - Clashes raged around a key northern Syrian town on Tuesday after the Islamic State group launched a counter-attack to fend off a US-backed advance near the jihadists' stronghold Raqa.

    Backed by air power from an international coalition bombing IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces are laying the groundwork for an assault on the heart of the jihadists' so-called "caliphate."

    A key part of the campaign is the battle for the IS-held town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, as well as the adjacent dam and military airport.

    The SDF seized the Tabqa airbase late Sunday and began pushing north towards the town itself, but IS fighters doubled down on their defenses on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

    "The fighting is a result of IS launching a counter-offensive to exhaust the Syrian Democratic Forces around the Tabqa military airport," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

    He said the SDF was working to "consolidate its positions" near the airport ahead of a final push for the town.

    SDF fighters are also bearing down on the Tabqa dam after capturing its northern entrance on Friday from IS fighters.

    Tabqa Dam

    The fight around the structure has been backed by forces from the US-led coalition, with American-made armoured vehicles bearing the markings of the US Marine Corps seen moving along a nearby road.

    An AFP correspondent at the dam on Tuesday said it was generally quiet around the dam itself, despite the occasional IS-fired mortar that landed in SDF-controlled parts of the riverbank.

    Airplanes could be heard humming above as SDF forces patrolled the northern entrance of the structure.

    'Acceptable' water levels

    On Tuesday, coalition forces could be seen standing near military vehicles less than two kilometres (one mile) from the dam, their mortar rounds casually stacked nearby.

    Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand with their weapons north of Raqqa city, Syria March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    After a brief pause in fighting on Monday to allow technicians to enter the dam complex, SDF fighters resumed their operations around the structure, said spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed.

    "IS amassed its fighters and attacked our forces in the area, which forced us to respond and resume the operations to liberate the dam," she said.

    Earlier this year, the United Nations raised concern about the prospect of damage to the dam in fighting, warning that water levels — which put pressure on the structure — were already high.

    sdf syrian democratic forces fighters raqqa

    IS has also issued warnings through its propaganda agency Amaq that the dam "is threatened with collapse at any moment because of American strikes and a large rise in water levels."

    On Tuesday, technicians accompanied by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent could be seen examining the dam to assess whether water levels had risen in recent days. 

    "The explosions and the clashes are threatening the dam, and we ask for all sides to distance themselves from it," said Ismail Jassem, an engineer from the SDF-controlled Tishreen Dam in neighbouring Aleppo province. 

    "The water levels are acceptable now. We came to open up one of the gates to relieve the pressure," he told AFP. 

    The SDF launched its offensive for Raqa city in November, seizing around two thirds of the surrounding province, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

    At their closest point, the forces are just eight kilometres (five miles) from Raqa city, to the northeast.

    But they are mostly further away, between 18 and 29 kilometres from Raqa.

    Syrian Democratic Forces fighters sit on a vehicle in the north of Raqqa city, Syria. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria, said IS had deployed around 900 fighters from Raqa city to various fronts in the wider province. 

    "Fighting is raging on every front around the city of Raqa, accompanied by non-stop air strikes," Abdel Rahman said.

    Syria's conflict began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has turned into a brutal war pitting government forces, jihadists, rebels, and Kurds against each other.

    UN-mediated talks between government and rebel representatives continued Tuesday in Geneva, aimed at bringing an end to the war that has killed 320,000 people.

    SEE ALSO: ISIS has left sinister threats for Iraqi forces as it abandons its rural outposts

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    Displaced people are checked by Iraqi forces as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

    Recent reports out of ISIS's final Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, indicate at least 100 civilians died in airstrikes almost certainly carried out by the US-led coalition's air campaign against the terror group.

    While the Pentagon has denied loosening its rules of engagement, an Associated Press report last month quoted a spokesman for the coalition, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, as saying US operators no longer needed to clear airstrikes with a Baghdad office, empowering coalition forces to more easily call in airstrikes.

    Business Insider reported that although the rules of engagement had not changed, procedures leading up to strikes had, so any coalition forces on the ground had a freer hand to call in airstrikes.

    This adjustment in tactics seems to have had grave results.

    "Eyewitnesses from Mosul and Iraqi officials have said last week's strike on Islamic State targets may have collapsed homes where rescue officials say as many as 200 people were buried in the rubble,"Reuters reported.

    Amnesty International gathered local reports of scores more civilians being killed in their homes after being told by Iraqi officials not to flee. It called the situation a "flagrant violation of international humanitarian law."

    But when confronted with mounting evidence about the troubling trend, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not deny or demure — he gave a circumspect response.

    "There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties," Mattis told Reuters reporters. "We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries."

    missile weapon handlers f18

    Mattis' statement stands up to initial scrutiny. The US almost exclusively uses precision guided munitions, which can greatly reduce civilian casualties when coupled with accurate intelligence.

    Compare that with cluster munitions, barrel bombs, and tons of unguided gravity bombs dropped haphazardly from miles above ground by Russia and Syria.

    Compare the US's swift admission to airstrikes in ISIS-held Iraq that killed dozens of civilians with a Russian general claiming in March 2016 that "not a single bombing raid missed the target," at a time when Russian warplanes supporting the Syrian regime had been linked to bombing hospitals.

    Writing for Duke University's Lawfire blog, retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap Jr. said, "The grim truth is that given ISIS tactics, civilians will die in the effort to crush the terrorists."

    Syria Russia airstrikes

    Dunlap cited a coalition spokesman as saying ISIS used "inhuman tactics" like "terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites, and civilian neighborhoods."

    For this reason, Dunlap says we must accept the sad truth and expect more civilians to die as a result of the campaign against ISIS.

    But also expect the US to be more accountable than any other nation when it comes to reconciling and making reparations for civilian victims of US strikes against ISIS.

    Reuters reported that the Pentagon would review 700 hours of footage taken over 10 days to determine if and when mistakes were made.

    SEE ALSO: US confirms its airstrike near ISIS's Iraqi capital killed dozens of civilians

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    A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter walks at the northern part of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, Syria. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    TABQA DAM, Syria (Reuters) - Islamic State shelled positions held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River on Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of engineers who were on site to open spillways, a Reuters witness said.

    Nobody was wounded by at least two explosions as Islamic State fired from the southern end of the dam, which it controls. The engineers are working to open the spillways to relieve the pressure of built-up water in the dam.

    The SDF, an alliance of militias including the Kurdish YPG and Arab fighters, captured the northern part of the dam last week. 

    (Reporting by Rodi Said; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Alison Williams)

    SEE ALSO: The fight for a key dam in Syria could lead to 'catastrophe' for hundreds of thousands of people

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    Rex Tillerson

    ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey will discuss Syria and the extradition of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed for a failed coup last July, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits Ankara this week, Turkey's foreign minister said on Wednesday.

    In an interview with broadcaster TRT Haber, Mevlut Cavusoglu also said the arrest in New York of an executive at state lender Halkbank on charges of involvement in violating U.S. sanctions on Iran would also be discussed.

    (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler; Writing by Nick Tattersall)

    SEE ALSO: Tillerson will not meet Turkey opposition in Ankara visit this week

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    Amir taaki darkwallet bitcoin

    Bitcoin tends to attract anarchists and political radicals. But few are as committed to the cause as Amir Taaki — a prominent Bitcoin developer who is reportedly under investigation after joining an anarchist movement in Syria and fighting ISIS.

    According to reports in the BBC and Wired, Taaki travelled to Syria in February 2015 to join the Rojava movement.

    "When I found out there was an actual anarchist revolution happening in Syria, I felt, 'I have to do that.' I was compelled to go help them," he told Wired.

    Taaki was previously famous for his radical political ideology, and his work on DarkWallet — bitcoin wallet software that makes transactions using the digital currency private and untraceable.

    Once in Syria, despite going out with the intention of offering technical support, Taaki found himself forced to fight instead."I got sent to the frontline. I had no training, and I was given a Kalashnikov. I learnt how to use a gun on the way, another Western fighter showed me," he said to the BBC. "I wanted to go elsewhere, where my skills would be useful."

    He says he subsequently provided software training, designed a curriculum, and helped build factories. "My main goal with going to Rojava was not because I opposed ISIS, it's because I support their [the Kurds'] revolution. I support their politics and their struggle," he said. "It is the only solution for lasting peace in the Middle East."

    He returned to the UK in 2016 — and has reportedly spent the last year on police bail. The authorities are reportedly concerned that he may have traveled to Syria to support or join ISIS — something he strongly denies — and his passport still hasn't been returned.

    A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told the BBC: "Everyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be reviewed by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security."

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    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a joint news conference with the Turkish Foreign Minister in Ankara, on March 30, 2017

    Ankara (AFP) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday the fate of President Bashar al-Assad was up to the people of Syria, in the clearest indication yet of the new administration's policy in the war-torn country.

    He also insisted during a visit to Turkey there was no difference between Ankara and Washington over the fight against the Islamic State group, even as his Turkish counterpart reiterated a key point of discord.

    "I think the... longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people," Tillerson told a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. 

    Under Barack Obama's administration, the US made Assad's departure a key policy goal, but new US President Donald Trump has put the accent firmly on defeating IS in Syria and Iraq.

    US-backed forces are battling IS as they advance on the jihadists' Syrian stronghold of Raqa, laying the groundwork for an assault on their so-called "caliphate".

    Tillerson's trip comes the day after Turkey announced the end of "Euphrates Shield", its own military offensive in northern Syria launched in August, but did not say if its troops had been withdrawn.

    Ties between the NATO allies were strained under Obama, particularly over US cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia fighting against IS, and the issue of a US-based Turkish preacher blamed by Ankara for orchestrating the attempted coup last year.

    - 'Difficult choices' -

    Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) as a "terror group" linked to Kurdish separatists waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984, but Washington regards them as the best force fighting IS.

    Turkey has suggested it wants to join any operation to capture Raqa, but without the Kurdish militia.

    Tillerson hailed Turkey as a "key partner" in the fight against IS jihadists. 

    "There's no space between Turkey and the US and our commitment to defeat Daesh, to defeat ISIS," he added, using other names for IS. 

    He said options to defeat IS "anywhere Daesh shows its face" were difficult. 

    "What we discussed today were options that are available to us... These are not easy decisions. There are difficult choices that have to be made," Tillerson said, without elaborating.

    "In terms of the future of Raqa we look forward to the liberation of Raqa and return of its control to local citizens authorities putting it under local control for security... so that all of the Syrians who had to flee that area can return."

    However, Cavusoglu said Ankara expected "better cooperation" with the Trump administration regarding the YPG.

    "It is not good or realistic to work with a terror group while fighting another terror group," he said.

    Numerous diplomatic efforts have failed to end the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad's regime.

    A fifth round of UN-sponsored peace talks is taking place in Geneva but no breakthrough has been reported and they are scheduled to end on Friday.

    Mark Toner, acting State Department spokesman, had said earlier this month that Washington saw Assad as "a brutal man who has led his country into this morass" who could not be "an acceptable leader to all of the Syrian people".

    "That said, it's up for the Syrian people -- that means opposition, moderate opposition – working with... some representation on the part of the regime to try to forge a political transition." 

    - 'Completely political' -

    Tillerson also met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for over two hours and held talks with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

    Another bone of contention between Ankara and Washington is Turkey's call for the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

    Turkey accuses Gulen, an erstwhile Erdogan ally who lives in self-imposed in Pennsylvania, of ordering the July military coup bid, charges he strongly denies.

    Yildirim's office said he and Tillerson discussed the next steps that should be taken for Gulen's return to Turkey.

    The US detention of a senior Turkish state bank executive this week has also raised tensions, with Cavusoglu describing it as "completely political".

    Halkbank's Mehmet Hakan Atilla is accused of helping to process millions of dollars of illegal transactions through US banks for Iran's government and other Iranian institutions.

    SEE ALSO: State Department employee charged with spying for China

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    More than 2.9 million Syrian refugees have been registered in Turkey, with many living in tent camps

    Beirut (AFP) - More than five million Syrians are now refugees, the UN said Thursday, as aid groups urged the international community to end the country's six-year war and provide more assistance.

    The new figures mean around a quarter of Syria's population has fled since the March 2011 start of a conflict that has killed over 320,000 people.

    The UN refugee agency UNHCR urged more international assistance, with spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly calling the figure an "important milestone".

    "As the number of men, women and children fleeing six years of war in Syria passes the five million mark, the international community needs to do more to help them," UNHCR said in a statement.

    NGOs helping Syrian refugees have regularly sounded the alarm about the crisis, appealing for more funds and international action to end Syria's war.

    "It's clear that the international community has completely failed to end the conflict in Syria," said Alun McDonald, regional spokesman for Save the Children.

    "The situation inside the country is still not remotely safe for people to go home, we see more people being uprooted every day," he told AFP.

    He said much of the international community was also failing refugees, increasingly closing borders and turning them away.

    Most Syrian refugees are hosted regionally, by neighbors Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, with more in Iraq and Egypt.

    Largest group in Turkey

    Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have also fled to Europe, often risking exploitation by smugglers and even death on arduous journeys by land and sea.

    syrian refugee boy istanbul

    Smaller numbers have been resettled officially in Europe, Canada and the United States, though President Donald Trump's administration has sought to temporarily halt all Syrian refugee entries.

    The largest group is in Turkey, with over 2.9 million registered Syrian refugees, according to the UN.

    Less than a tenth reside in camps, with most living in Turkish cities, including more than half a million in Istanbul alone.

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an early backer of the Syrian uprising who repeatedly urged Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to step down, has even floated the possibility of granting some refugees citizenship.

    In Jordan, some 657,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN, but the government says the true figure is 1.3 million.

    Tens of thousands of Syrians live in two large camps, Zaatari and Azraq, but the majority live in homes and apartments, able to access the job market but competing for scarce employment.

    The situation is more complicated in Lebanon, where the government refused the establishment of formal camps.

    The UN says around one million Syrians are in the country, though the government says the figure is higher, with many living in dismal conditions in informal camps. 

    Impact on children

    Lebanon has just four million citizens and was already struggling with limited resources, unemployment and overstretched infrastructure before the refugee influx.

    syrian refugees

    In a joint statement with Syrian organizations, charity Oxfam on Thursday urged more support for host countries.

    "Oxfam calls on rich countries to show their support for Syria's neighbors that have welcomed these refugees and to resettle at least the most vulnerable 10 percent most of Syrian refugees by the end of 2017," said Oxfam international executive director Winnie Byanyima.

    "It's a protracted crisis and the funding is not catching up with the needs," added Oxfam spokeswoman Joelle Bassoul.

    "With fewer resources we now have to help more people," she told AFP.

    Aid groups and the UN have also regularly warned about the long-term impact of the crisis, particularly on children.

    "A million Syrian refugee children are out of school and missing out on education, and they are the ones who will have to contribute to rebuilding Syria for the next generation," said McDonald.

     

    SEE ALSO: Turkey has threatened to send 15,000 refugees a month to Europe

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    Syria's main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Nasr al-Hariri attends a round of negotiation with Deputy UN Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy (not pictured), during the Intra Syria talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, March 27, 2017. REUTERS/Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool

    GENEVA (Reuters) - Syria's opposition said on Friday that the "terrorist regime" of President Bashar al-Assad had refused to discuss political transition during a round of U.N.-led talks, reiterating that he was a war criminal who must step down in the name of peace.

    "They are solely discussing their empty rhetoric about countering terrorism, although they attracted terrorism to region, they used all kinds of weapons, and they used siege and chemical weapons against the people," chief opposition negotiator Nasr al-Hariri told reporters.

    Hariri was speaking after meeting U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura for the last time during an eight-day round of U.N.-mediated talks in Geneva.

    (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay)

    SEE ALSO: Secretary of State Tillerson signals that Bashar al-Assad could remain in power after ISIS falls

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    Air force special operations

    The Pentagon is no longer going to disclose how many troops are in Iraq and Syria, a sharp departure from an Obama administration policy that kept the public abreast of increased troop deployments to the region.

    Though the US military has increasingly deployed conventional ground forces in its fight against ISIS in recent months, to include US Army Rangers and US Marine artillerymen, neither were announced by the Department of Defense.

    According to the Los Angeles Times, the reason is due to a policy shift from the Trump administration.

    “In order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection, the coalition will not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Times.

    The Pentagon did not immediately respond to additional questions from Business Insider.

    The US military seems to be taking on a larger role in the coalition effort to topple ISIS, with special operations forces already in the region being augmented by more traditional US troops. In early March, a convoy of US Army Rangers riding in armored Stryker combat vehicles were seen crossing the border into Syria to support Kurdish military forces in Manbij. The convoy, identified by SOFREP as being from 3rd Ranger Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, was the most overt use of US troops in the region thus far.

    Until this most recent Ranger deployment, the Pentagon had adamantly stuck to the line that its "regional partners"— Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga for the most part — were bearing the brunt of the battle.

    The Ranger deployment was followed by a contingent of US Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine regiment, which left their ships to establish a combat outpost inside Syria that is apparently within striking distance of Raqqa, the terror group's capital.

    Additional combat troops from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division are heading there as well.

    The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently launched an operation to seize the Tabqa Dam from ISIS control, which has been supported by advisors and US airstrikes, artillery, and helicopters, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

    There are currently around 6,000 US troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, according to Military Times, though even that number does not tell the whole story since the Pentagon assigns troops to the region on a "temporary" basis that does not contribute to its total count.

    SEE ALSO: The Pentagon says its rules of engagement haven't changed, despite them being 'adjusted' last month

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