BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 13 (UPI) -- As the Syrian war edges toward its seventh year on Wednesday, several hundred elite U.S. Army Rangers and Marines with heavy artillery have deployed in northern Syria in a modest but significant military escalation by U.S. President Donald Trump in the campaign against the Islamic State that may further expand in the coming weeks.
U.S. officials on Wednesday said the Trump administration could base up to 1,000 U.S. troops in Kuwait to serve as a fast-reaction reserve force in the battle against IS — a move that strongly suggests Trump is prepared to substantially raise the stakes in Syria after years of half-hearted U.S. involvement.
However, the U.S. action heightened tensions with Turkey, a NATO partner and nominal ally, and sharply exposed the increasingly complex geopolitical rivalries that have emerged in northern Syria. They come amid final preparations for the battle for Raqqa, de facto capital of the caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State and the group's last urban stronghold in Syria.
Ankara is at odds with the United States over which forces should spearhead the final assault on Raqqa, expected to be unleashed in the next few weeks.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned that Ankara's relations with the United States could be "seriously damaged" if the Americans continued to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated alliance that has been the United States' most reliable partner in the multisided Syrian maelstrom.
In a bizarre twist in a long-bewildering war, the primary mission of the U.S. Army Rangers is to protect the Americans' Kurdish and Arab allies massed in the region from Turkey, which wants its own forces to lead the charge against Raqqa, the big prize in the war to crush IS.
There have been sporadic clashes between the two forces, heightening the messy struggle for regional influence between the key powers involved in the Syrian conflict.
The force of 200 U.S. Marines, equipped with 155mm howitzers, which can lob GPS-guided shells 20 miles, have dug in west of Raqqa. The gunners from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit will provide fire support for U.S.-backed Syrian forces who are preparing to assault Raqqa under cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The troops from the 75th Ranger Regiment deployed west of the town of Manbij, northwest of Raqqa, with heavily armored Stryker fighting vehicles.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.