U.S. special operations troops have joined Turkish soldiers and Syrian opposition groups to clear Islamic State fighters from northern Syria, the Pentagon said, the latest sign that the Obama administration is deepening its involvement in the 5 1/2 year civil war.
"Denying ISIL access to this critical border cuts off critical supply routes in and out of Iraq and Syria," Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State. There are about 40 special operations troops in the operation, said a U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous because the details aren't public.
The U.S. had previously disclosed that it would deploy up to 300 special operations troops in Syria to help opposition fighters combating Islamic State, but it wasn't previously known that they were working alongside Turkish troops who first crossed the border late last month, days after a suicide bomber killed at least 54 people at a wedding in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that the U.S. had agreed to send the special-operations troops into Syria with Turkish forces. A Turkish offensive has already pushed Islamic State from the border town of Jarablus, and Turkish tanks and armored units are advancing toward militant-held areas northwest of Aleppo.
The fight with Turkey along the northern border is part of broader U.S. efforts to counter Islamic State and alleviate a humanitarian crisis in Syria. A week ago, the U.S. and Russia agreed to a ceasefire deal to halt fighting between the opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's forces and allow for humanitarian aid to get to civilians. If the ceasefire holds for seven days, Moscow and Washington would then create a Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against extremists.
Earlier Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Russian counterpart that the U.S. was prepared to walk away from plans to coordinate strikes unless delays in aid deliveries are resolved. The United Nations is ready to deliver the aid but says it hasn't received the necessary permission from the Syrian government to proceed.
"Secretary Kerry expressed concerns about the repeated and unacceptable delays of humanitarian aid," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Friday after Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone. Russia must "use its influence on the Assad regime to allow UN humanitarian convoys to reach Aleppo and other areas in need," Kirby said.
"The Secretary made clear that the United States will not establish the Joint Implementation Center with Russia unless and until the agreed terms for humanitarian access are met," he added.