March 1, 2017 / 5:20 PM / 5 months ago

U.S. commander downplays chance of big Iraq, Syria troop hike

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in Iraq on Wednesday downplayed the chances that the United States would deploy a large number of additional coalition forces to battle Islamic State, even as President Donald Trump weighs options to speed the campaign.

Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend also delivered a robust defence of Kurdish fighters that have been America's strongest allies on the ground in Syria, despite concerns from Turkey that they pose a threat. He even signalled some role for Kurdish forces in an upcoming offensive for the city of Raqqa.

Townsend declined to openly discuss his recommendations for accelerating the fight against Islamic State but his comments represent one of the strongest signals yet that the U.S. military will not advocate any fundamental shift in a key strategy that relies on local ground forces.

The United States now fields less than 6,000 troops in both Iraq and Syria, a far cry from a peak of about 170,000 to Iraq under President George W. Bush.

"I don't foresee us bringing in large numbers of coalition troops, mainly because what we're doing is, in fact, working," Townsend told a Pentagon news briefing, speaking via video conference from Baghdad.

"But in that event that we bring in any additional troops, we'll work that with our local partners, both here in Iraq and Syria, to make sure that they understand the reasons why we're doing that and to get their buy-in of that."

Trump has made defeating Islamic State - which has claimed responsibility for attacks on American soil, in Europe and elsewhere - one of the key themes of his presidency, and his administration received a draft Pentagon plan on Monday to accelerate the campaign.

Details of that plan have not been disclosed, but Townsend said he still believed that fighting "by, with and through our local partners" was succeeding.

"That is still the right way to go. It is working and our local partners are fully invested, they are leading the fight," he said.

Kurdish Role in Raqqa

Trump's push against Islamic State in Syria could soon present him with an unenviable decision on whether to risk alienating NATO ally Turkey by relying on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, which in addition to Arabs includes Kurdish YPG fighters.

Townsend stressed that ethnically Kurdish fighters would have some role in the campaign since there were Kurds in Raqqa, the larger Raqqa district and the province.

"There are going to be Kurds assaulting Raqqa for sure. The number, the size of them, and how many Kurdish units are participating in that, I can't really say right now," he said.

Turkey is strongly opposed to YPG militia involvement in the operation to liberate Raqqa, not only because it sees the force as an extension of the PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state, but also because it says Raqqa is an Arab-dominated city.

It is unclear if the United States can do anything to ease those concerns.

Even before the start of the SDF's campaign for Raqqa, Syrian Kurdish politicians had indicated that the city was not a priority for them: the stated aim of the YPG was to defend Kurdish areas rather than venture into parts of Syria where Arabs are in the majority.

Turkey fears that YPG fighters could leverage victory in Raqqa as a negotiating strategy to solidify their gains elsewhere in Syria during that country's civil war.

In a sign of growing tension, a component of the U.S.-allied militias accused the Turkish army and allied Syrian rebels on Wednesday of attacking villages controlled by the U.S.-backed group near the city of Manbij in northern Syria.

Townsend delivered a robust defence of the YPG fighters who receive U.S. support, saying he had seen no evidence linking them to attacks on Turkey from northern Syria in the past two years.

"I've talked to their leaders and we've watched them operate and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey, in fact that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey," Townsend said.

Russian Bombing?

Despite Trump's suggestions during the campaign of potential joint action with Russia against Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has played down that possibility. He said in mid-February he did not see prospects for military collaboration.

At the same time, Russian and Syrian forces are coming within increasing proximity to U.S.-backed troops.

Townsend said Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed positions held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition near the Syrian town of al Bab on Tuesday, inflicting casualties.

Russia denied hitting any such targets, however, according to according to RIA news agency.

The United States and Russia have a channel for avoiding an accidental clash in Syria but some U.S. commanders have advocated creating an additional channel involving more senior officers given the close proximity of fighting.

Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Nick Tattersall; Editing by James Dalgleish

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