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Mar 24, 3:04 PM EDT

US-aided fighters face little resistance in Syrian operation



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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters have encountered light resistance in northern Syria after U.S. pilots airlifted them into combat, an American officer said Friday, suggesting the operation caught Islamic State militants by surprise.

The airlift was the first of its kind in Syria, designed to kick-start an offensive to recapture IS-held territory west of Raqqa, the extremist group's self-declared capital. The targets: The Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, the nearby town of Tabqa and an airfield. The goal: To seal off Raqqa's western approaches before a planned offensive to recapture that city.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, spokesman in Baghdad for the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, said the U.S.-backed forces have used boats on Lake Assad to bring in reinforcements as well as heavy equipment and armored vehicles.

They are progressing "without serious opposition," Scrocca said in an email exchange. Asked to elaborate, he said this "indicates that ISIS was not ready for" the arrival of large numbers of the U.S.-backed rebels known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

"Thus, any ISIS that were in the area got out of there pretty quick when faced with the overwhelming numbers," he said. "I expect they will reinforce though, and there will be some tough days ahead as the force gets closer to the airfield and city."

Scrocca said U.S. Marines continue to provide artillery support for the forces while Apache attack helicopters target IS positions around the dam.

U.S. troops haven't engaged in ground combat. But the new offensive suggests the Trump administration is taking an increasingly aggressive approach as it readies the Raqqa assault.

The move on Tabqa Dam is occurring despite an unresolved U.S. dispute with Turkey over which Syrian forces should recapture Raqqa.

Turkey, a U.S. ally in NATO, opposes the Kurdish role because Ankara considers the main Kurdish fighting force, known as YPG, a terrorist organization. Washington sees it as a critical battlefield partner. U.S. officials said this week that some Kurds would inevitably be part of the Raqqa offensive, although the Pentagon still hoped to reach an accommodation with the Turks.

By design, the Tabqa operation is coinciding with a potentially climactic battle for Mosul, the militants' main stronghold in Iraq. Together, the battles reflect a U.S. strategy of presenting IS with multiple challenges simultaneously.

Although Mosul and Raqqa are the Islamic State group's two most important holdings, their recapture isn't expected to mark their elimination as an international threat.

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