WASHINGTON — The US military said on Wednesday that it took part in an air assault on a major Syrian dam, the opening salvo in what it expects to be a weeks-long campaign against ISIS.
In the bid to retake the ISIS-controlled dam and airfield in the Syrian city of Taqba, US troops moved along with several hundred local troops, some reportedly brought in on Chinook transport helicopters. In addition, US Apache attack helicopters flew nearby to provide close air support, the Pentagon said.
Wednesday's mission is the closest that US forces have come to fighting ISIS directly in Syria and arguably the greatest stretch by the US military of what constitutes what is supposed to only be a mission to train and advise members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters.
Despite that, US troops were “not engaged in direct combat,” Army Col. Joseph Scrocca, spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, adding later: “Our advisers are advising. They are not fighting on the frontline.”
US Marines also provided artillery support, the military said. But otherwise, the battle was largely furtive. Scrocca refused to offer specifics about the ramped-up US engagement in Taqba. Scrocca would also not say how many US troops were involved, how close they were to the front lines, or what kind of aircraft were used beyond the Apaches.
The goal of the unannounced assault is to catch the terror group by surprise, the Pentagon explained.
“We’ll let ISIS figure it out," Scrocca said.
Scrocca said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who is leading the US effort in Iraq, made the decision to launch this mission using his existing authorities. Under the Trump administration, the White House has taken a more hands-off approach than the previous administration, delegating the details on the war to the generals. It is unclear whether the White House and Capitol Hill were briefed or consulted on the mission before it proceeded.
Scrocca did say no US troops came under fire or were injured during the first day of the battle. He also said no US troops were brought in for the Taqba battle but rather were already there training local forces.
The Pentagon has refused to say how many troops are currently in Syria. The official cap is at 503 troops but an untold number of troops are not listed in that figure, counted instead as troops serving in temporary duty.
“This is yet another example of the gradual mission escalation seen under the 2001 AUMF for 16 years," Sen. Tim Kaine told BuzzFeed News when asked about the assault on the dam. "With 68 nations in Washington today discussing the counter-ISIS strategy, Congress should fulfill its obligation and authorize this military action against ISIS, as many of our coalition partners have already done.“
Taqba, which has been under ISIS control since 2013, serves as a major gateway to the city of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital. The US military said the operation was part of the shaping campaign in the long-anticipated battle for Raqqa.
Scrocca also said that the US military conducted several strikes near Raqqa in support of the battle for Taqba. Some observers and witnessed charged that one of the US strikes hit a school, killing at least 30 civilians who were using the facility as a shelter. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the school was south of the Syrian village of Mansoura, just south of Raqqa.
The US military said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, it had yet to confirm it had conducted the strike that allegedly killed civilians, but still is investigating. Scrocca said the US did not deconflict with any other country's forces as operating in the area before conducting its assault, leaving only the coalition capable of launching such a strike.