WASHINGTON — U.S. forces and coalition partners have increased patrols and personnel in the north central area of Syria where a U.S. soldier and British soldier were killed last week, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The added activities are, in part, to continue a “kill or capture a known ISIS member” operation that took the coalition contingent outside the borders of the northern Syrian town of Manbij, Pentagon officials said. Official Pentagon policy prohibits U.S. forces from going west of Manbij.
The Pentagon has been tight-lipped about the mission that left U.S. Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar and British Sgt. Matt Tonroe dead from an IED explosion on Friday. Five others were wounded in the attack.
Officials said the troops were not in vehicles when the IED triggered. However, the Pentagon has not disclosed the specifics of the incident, including where it occurred and where the IED was located in relation to the kill-or-capture squad.
The troop activity in and around Manbij is distinctly different than the situation in the other major enclave of U.S.-led anti-ISIS efforts in the lower Euphrates River valley. Coalition forces there are continuing in a now month-long pause in ground action following the departures of Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Kurdish elements of the SDF went north to Manbij and Afrin, which is west of Manbij, to counter a Turkey offensive that started in late January.
The two towns are roughly 60 miles apart, skirting the Turkey-Syria border. Pentagon officials said there is a mix of forces in the territory between the two areas.
Pentagon officials, as well as U.S. commanders from the region, regularly say that ISIS has lost 98 decent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria at its peak.
The same day of the IED attack, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. troops would soon be out of Syria. The unscripted public remarks, made during an appearance in Ohio, caught the State Department and Pentagon by surprise.
The next day, the White House announced an end to $200 million in reconstruction efforts in Syria.
(Radio Free Europe reported Tuesday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed Trump’s statement to remove U.S. troops from Syria, saying there were “worrisome” signs that U.S. troops were “getting deeply entrenched” in areas where they have ousted ISIS.)
The U.S. has between 2,000 and 3,000 troops in Syria, as part of a multi-nation effort against ISIS, the Pentagon has said. ISIS’ strength is estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000 in Syria, but the group no longer holds the swath of land it held in 2016 and early 2017.
U.S. forces first went to Manbij in 2016 after SDF drove out ISIS and reclaimed the city. They initially conducted patrols to make the U.S. flag visible and serve as a buffer between the SDF and forces from both Turkey and the Syrian regime. Later they began training the SDF and other support activities.
The latest shift of U.S. troops is the latest in the widening gyre of troops and political maneuvering.
According to news reports, Russian President Putin was to visit Turkey today and tomorrow to discuss the future of Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.