WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State has begun preparing to open a major front in northeastern Syria, aiming to put pressure on Raqqa, the terrorist group's de facto capital, the New York Times reported, citing military and administration officials.
President Barack Obama last week approved two important steps to set the offensive in motion over the coming weeks, officials said. Obama ordered the Pentagon, for the first time, to directly provide ammunition and perhaps some weapons to Syrian opposition forces on the ground. He also endorsed the idea for an increased air campaign from an air base in Turkey, although important details still need to be worked out.
Together, these measures are intended to empower 3,000 to 5,000 Arab fighters who would join more than 20,000 Kurdish combatants in an offensive backed by dozens of allied warplanes to pressure Raqqa, the Islamic State's main stronghold in Syria. Plans are also moving forward to have Syrian opposition fighters seal an important 60-mile part of the country's border with Turkey to cut off critical supply lines of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
As recently as Friday, Obama said he would take all steps necessary to combat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The new approach relies on Arab fighters, whose commanders have been screened by U.S. forces, as well as Kurdish fighters who are more battle-tested and whose loyalties Washington can count on.
"The top-line message that I want everybody to understand is, we are going to continue to go after ISIL," Obama told reporters. "We are going to continue to reach out to a moderate opposition."
Senior administration officials say the new offensive holds promise and may change the dynamics on the ground. But it comes a year after a U.S.-led coalition started a campaign against the Islamic State that is now "tactically stalemated," Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last month.
Whether the new approach can succeed remains to be seen. The Islamic State has proved to be more resilient to coalition attacks and adaptive in the face of international pressure than U.S. officials anticipated.
The new U.S.-led push would be conducted far from the brunt of the Russian air campaign in western Syria. That Russian operation has been largely directed at Syrian groups that oppose President Bashar Assad, and is only nominally aimed at the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.
The outlines of the mission have been drawn from public statements of senior commanders briefing Congress as well as interviews with more than a half-dozen military, diplomatic and administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. Even in describing the goals of the campaign, officials said they would not disclose the kinds of details that might help the Islamic State anticipate exactly how the planned offensive would unfold.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the commander of CentCom at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, hinted at the emerging strategy last month, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that over the next six months it would put "a lot more pressure on key areas in Syria, like the city of Raqqa."
assad says russia must succeed: Syria's President Bashar Assad said in comments Sunday that the air campaign by Russia against "terrorists" in his country must succeed or the whole region will be destroyed, stressing that the fight against terrorism must precede a political process.
In the interview with Iran's Khabar TV, Assad also accused Western nations of fueling the refugee crisis and said the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State group will only spark more instability in his country and the region.