The following post has been updated with a statement from U.S. Central Command.
An undisclosed number of Marines assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in Syria recently to join U.S. forces and local forces poised to push Islamic State militants out of the city of Raqqa, according to a report in The Washington Post.
It remained unclear, however, as of late Wednesday, whether their presence marks the start of a much larger deployment of U.S. ground troops in Syria to expand the scope of U.S. operations on the ground or to bolster support to special operations forces already advising local troops in their fight against the Islamic State.
The 2,400-member 11th MEU, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., has been operating in the Middle East as part of the USS Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group since Nov. 30, when the three-ship naval force arrived in U.S. 5th Fleet. Just last month, elements of the 11th MEU joined with Omani forces for the bilateral exercise Sea Soldier 2017.
An 11th MEU spokesman, Maj. Craig Thomas, referred questions from USNI News about its Marines’ reassignment to U.S. Central Command.
“A U.S. Marine Corps artillery unit deployed to provide the Coalition greater agility to enable and expedite our Syrian partnered forces defeat of ISIS in Raqqah. The strategy adopted by the Coalition remains the same – we will continue to work by, with and through partnered forces to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” officials with Commander, Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said in a Thursday statement to USNI News.
“Our partners in Syria face an entrenched foe and like the Iraqis will require additional support to enable them to fight and defeat ISIS in Raqqah. The deployment of these additional key enabling capabilities allows the coalition to provide flexible all-weather fire support to our Syrian partners when they need it most.”
The Marines’ redeployment was first reported by The Washington Post’s Checkpoint blog on Wednesday.
A defense official told the Post the redeployment had “been in the works for sometime” and wasn’t driven by the new administration’s stated desire to expand the fight against the Islamic State. But President Donald Trump has said he wants a much more aggressive campaign in Syria with additional U.S. ground forces and tasked Defense Secretary James Mattis to come up with plans to knock out Islamic State.
The 11th MEU’s Marines traveled from Djibouti to Kuwait and then went into Syria, a defense official told the Washington Post. “The Marines answer a problem that the [operation] has faced,” the official told the newspaper, adding the Marines provide “all-weather fires considering how the weather is this time of year in northern Syria.”
The 11th MEU is comprised of a ground combat element with armored vehicles, tanks and heavy weapons as well as additional reconnaissance and security teams; an air combat element of attack and transport helicopters, the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and AV-8B Harrier attack jets; and a combat logistics battalion. Its ground force is led by 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, a reinforced infantry battalion that includes an artillery battery that fires 155mm shells from their M777 lightweight howitzers and other detachments that can provide fires control.
It’s unclear how long the Marines will be in Syria. A year ago, Marines with the 26th MEU were sent into northern Iraq to provide artillery power in support of U.S. Army troops supporting Iraq security forces near Mosul. An attack on an outpost killed one Marine and wounded several others.