U.S. special operations troops are taking on a new mission in Syria, working alongside Turkish troops who are fighting Islamic State militants in the Turkish border region.
"U.S. special operations forces have been approved to accompany Turkish and vetted Syrian opposition forces as they continue to clear territory from ISIL," Marine Corps Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. He was referring to the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The new mission marks the first time that U.S. and Turkish troops have mounted ground-level joint operations in Syria. It’s part of expanding American-Turkish cooperation in Syria, which started in August with U.S. aircraft providing close-air support for Turkish ground troops in the battle for the Syrian border town of Jarablus.
"U.S. personnel operating with Turkish forces and Syrian opposition forces will provide the same train, advise and assist support they have been providing to local partners in Syria fighting ISIL," the Pentagon spokesman said.
The new mission will not require a change in the current U.S. force level in Syria, which is capped at 300 troops, a defense official said. It was first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal, which said about 40 special operations troops will be working with the Turkish forces.
The joint U.S.-Turkish operations signal a big improvement in the two countries’ relationship that has frayed recently. Turkey leaders have accused U.S. military officers of backing the Turkish military’s botched coup attempt in July.
While the number of U.S. troops involved is minimal, putting American forces alongside Turkish troops on the ground may give the U.S. significantly more influence in the outcome of the 5-year-old Syrian civil war, said Josh Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
"This is an opportunity to sit with important Turkish military leaders as they make decisions about which militants they are going to ally with and promote to take over regions," Landis said in an interview Friday.
"The Americans want to sit in the room with Turkey's leaders when these people are vetted because those people may end up running northern Syria. The U.S. doesn’t want it to be al Nusra [an al-Qaida affiliate] or hard-bitten Islamists," Landis said.
"America is going to want have a front row seat at the table."