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Raqqa weeks from siege as US sends elite troops to Syria

There are now about 1,000 US troops in Syria, as death toll from coalition strike in northern Syria rises to 23 civilians
An SDF fighter looks over the Euphrates river, north of Raqqa, on 8 March (Reuters)

The US has confirmed the arrival of about 400 Marines and heavy artillery in Syria, as allies on the ground said they were weeks from fully besieging the Islamic State in its de facto capital in Raqqa.

There are already around 500 US military personnel in the country, US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said on Thursday, and the new force's artillery unit would be providing support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Arab Coalition.

The new deployment will not have a front-line role, Dorrian added, but their artillery support would help "expedite the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa".

The SDF has been the key US partner in the war against IS in Syria, and includes the Kurdish YPG militia. It launched its campaign for Raqqa in November.

Raqqa could be surrounded in a few weeks, Dorrian said, and the campaign is going "very, very well".

The SDF echoed him comments on Thursday, saying it had already cut the main roads out of the city.

"We have had what I would describe as a pretty relentless air campaign to destroy enemy capabilities and to kill enemy fighters in that area already," he said.

"That is something that we are going to continue and intensify with this new capability."

His comments came as US-led coalition air strikes in northern Syria killed at least 23 civilians, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The death toll was earlier reported to be 14. 

The new deployment was not the result of an order from US President Donald Trump, a US military source told the Washington Post on Wednesday, before the development had been officially confirmed, but had "been in the works for some time".

Turkey, concerned about a consolidation of Kurdish control on its border with Syria, has been keen for a role in the capture of Raqqa.

Dorrian did not rule that out, and said a possible position for Turkey "remains a point of discussion at military leadership and diplomatic levels".

"We have always said we are open to a role for Turkey in the liberation of Raqqa and will continue that discussion to whatever logical end there is."

The SDF however said on Thursday it rejected any Turkish role in operations.

"The Turkish side is an occupation force and it cannot be allowed to occupy more Syrian land," Talal Silo, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters.