US soldiers in Syria to back anti-IS Kurds: Kurdish sources
US soldiers are in now in the Syrian border town of Kobane where they are to train Kurdish forces to battle the Islamic State group, Kurdish sources said on Thursday.
Mustapha Abdi, an activist in the town on the Turkish border, told AFP the American instructors had arrived "in recent hours" in what is the first official deployment of US ground troops in Syria.
A source with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) said the Americans would help plan offensives against two Syrian cities held by IS - Jarablus and the militants' Syrian "capital", Raqqa. At the same time, they would have a role in coordinating with the Kurds and their Arab and Syriac Christian allies on the ground air strikes on IS by the US-lead coalition, the YPG source said.
Kobane, also known as Ayn al-Arab, is town in northern Syria which was nearly destroyed in fierce fighting with the Islamic State group last year. Following widespread international outrage about the IS assault there, the US-led anti-IS coalition began bombing IS targets in Syria, helping to drive back IS although the militants still launch period attacks in the strategically key town.
While the US has provided aerial support, Washington has previously been wary of being seen to provide too much support to the YPG due to NATO ally Turkey's fears that an independent Kurdish entity could be created along its borders. The decision to openly train YPG fighters marks a break with it's previously cautious approach to the group, however.
Abdi said that the troops who had arrived were a "first group of instructors" who would train the Kurds.
He did not say how many of them had arrived or to what branch, or branches, of the military they belonged.
However, Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said: "More than 50 American instructors have arrived in northern and northeastern Syria.”
He said they had arrived in two groups over the past two days, coming from Turkey and from the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
He said about 30 of them were in Kobane itself, with the rest in Hasakeh province in eastern Syria.
Abdel Rahman, whose group relies on a local network of sources, said the US troops are expected to regroup in Kobane to train fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab factions backed by the United States.
The news comes after Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the coalition, said on Sunday that US forces would be arriving on the ground "very soon".
At the end of October, Obama authorised the deployment of 50 special operations troops to Syria, and McGurk said their job would be to "organise" local forces.
A key objective will be to "isolate" Raqqa the IS capital in Syria, he said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces alliance of local fighters has already retaken more than 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) from IS and killed around 300 IS fighters, McGurk said.
IS began an offensive on the Kobane area, which lies right on the Turkish border, in September of last year. Within just a couple of weeks it had captured scores of villages and towns around Kobane city, prompting tens of thousands to flee their homes.
After a desperate resistance that drew worldwide attention, the Kurds managed to regain full control of the city in January, eventually retaking swathes of the lost territory.