The number of U.S. Special Operations forces fighting ISIS could increase in the coming weeks, two defense officials told CNN.
As the Pentagon looks at trying to accelerate its campaign against ISIS in Syrian and Iraq, one idea under consideration is sending several dozen additional U.S. Special Operations forces into Syria, the officials said.
But they both strongly caution at this point the idea is just being discussed and is not yet a formal, detailed option for the White House. The discussions are expected to take place at the White House this week, and could come as soon as tomorrow, a third U.S. official said.
The goal is to lay the groundwork for local forces to retake both Raqqa and Mosul and eliminate ISIS’ ability to use them as areas from which to plan external attacks.
Under the current military effort, up to 50 Special Operations forces are authorized to be in Syria to advise and assist moderate Syrian forces fighting ISIS. That effort has proven successful in several recent battles, including efforts to cut ISIS travel between Raqqa and Mosul and to retake the key town of Shaddadi.
But the work is highly dangerous, with the Special Operations forces operating in small teams at times far from their base in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
The number of Special Operations forces inside Syria ebbs and flows with perhaps less than half the authorized amount inside Syria at any one time, one official said.
The idea being discussed is to add more teams to the effort so the moderate forces can accelerate their own fighting. But the numbers of additional U.S. troops would deliberately have to be kept relatively small so they can maintain a low profile and not require additional transportation and supply support that might be visible.
One of the major tasks in the coming months is preparing opposition forces to retake Raqqa, ISIS’ self-declared capital in Syria. The U.S. hopes Syrian Arab forces as well as some members of the Syrian Democratic Front, which includes non-Arab fighters, will be in a position to do that with U.S. advising and assistance, the officials said.
The U.S. military has also restarted a small training effort for Syrian anti-ISIS fighters months after an initial effort failed.
In the current training program, the U.S. has selected small numbers of fighters from various groups and transported them across the border to Turkey for several days of basic training.
The fighters are given radios and taught how to communicate with U.S. forces. When they see potential targets, they inform the Americans, which then sends its own reconnaissance aircraft to determine if the target should be struck.