Britain is planning to send more troops to Syria to support partner forces in the fight against Isil, after pressure from the US to pick up slack as it begins its drawdown, it has been reported.
The UK has never made public the number of special forces it has operating in Syria, but it is thought to be several dozen.
Both the UK and France – the only other US allies on the ground – are said to be prepared to increase their commitment by 10-15 per cent each, according to US official quoted in Foreign Policy, who said they would be asking for financial assistance in return.
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment. Germany on Monday rejected a similar request from Washington to increase their military contribution, saying it was only prepared to offer “non-combat assistance”.
The official told Foreign Policy that “overall we have been disappointed” in efforts to persuade America’s allies to commit additional resources to the country, where the war has been raging for more than eight years.
President Donald Trump in December declared a complete withdrawal of the US’s some 2,000 troops from Syria, an announcement that took even his own advisers by surprise.
Senior officials and diplomats privately called the decision hasty, warning the Islamic State would continue to pose a serious threat even after its territorial defeat.
The move prompted the resignation of James Mattis, then the Defense Secretary, Brett McGurk, the former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter Isil, and a number of other top officials. Mr Trump later partially reversed the decision, saying several hundred troops would remain to support the coalition’s ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The Pentagon and the US intelligence community have warned that Isil still has thousands of sympathisers across northeastern Syria, and a swift withdrawal risked leaving a power vacuum they could exploit.
The Kurdish-led SDF has also called for Western troops to remain on the ground in northeastern Syria, where Kurdish fighters are battling to defeat sleeper cells.
“The US is repeating a critical mistake by deprioritising this effort at a pivotal moment when our gains are at their most fragile,” warned a new report by the Institute for the Study of War.
“The US must take immediate steps to dampen ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, including halting and reversing America’s ongoing withdrawal from Syria.” Britain has maintained troops in Syria since 2014, largely operating out of a US base in the east of the country and carrying out reconnaissance missions.
However, it is also thought to have taken part in frontline fighting with the jihadists in key battles in Isil’s former “capital” Raqqa and their final stronghold in Deir Ezzor. A unit came under attack by Isil RPG fire earlier this year, which left two injured.
And in March 2018, Sergeant Matt Tonroe, 33, from the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, was killed in Syria while embedded with US forces as part of a counter-terrorism operation.
Earlier this week, Theresa May, Prime Minister, paid tribute to British forces in Syria, hailing troops who “have helped destroy the territorial caliphate of Daesh (Isil), and who continue the fight against the evil it stands for”.
The commitment is being portrayed as a major victory for Mr Trump, who had campaigned on reducing US footprint in the Middle East.
Some even suggested yesterday that the UK’s decision was made to remind the US that Britain remained an important ally after an embarrassing leak of diplomatic cables revealed unfavourable remarks about Mr Trump made by Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador to the US.