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Pentagon To Detail Plans For Arming Syrian Kurds Fighting ISIS


American airstrikes hit a convoy of pro-government fighters in Syria yesterday. Officials say the convoy had entered a restricted zone near a base in southern Syria where rebels are being trained. Separately, President Trump has authorized the Pentagon to start arming Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. But Turkey, which is a U.S. ally, considers that group to be terrorists. So to get a clearer idea of what is going on, I spoke earlier to NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hi, Tom.


MARTIN: Who are these Syrian fighters? And do we know any more about what specifically the U.S. is going to be offering them?

BOWMAN: Well, they're Syrian Kurdish fighters, and they're considered the best fighters that the U.S. is supporting. And we have a better sense now what they'll be getting, Rachel. We're talking mostly small arms, thousands of AK-47s, millions of rounds of ammunition, mortars, anti-tank weapons to blow up car bombs, not to go after tanks.

And also, these Syrian Kurds are expected to get dozens of armored vehicles to help in the upcoming assault on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. Now, right now, the Syrian Kurds and Arab fighters are surrounding Raqqa. And a final assault could begin in June or July, I'm told. This will not be easy. ISIS has dug in here. They've had a couple of years to build defenses. There are hundreds of thousands of civilians who could be used as human shields. But this support for them - these arms, these armored vehicles - is very, very important.

MARTIN: So they're going to get machinery, equipment, supplies. What about American troops?

BOWMAN: Well, we do expect some more American troops to head into Syria - maybe a couple of hundred - and they'll mostly be trainers. But there are also maintenance people to help with these armored vehicles. And they'd be positioned pretty far away from Raqqa, up along the Syrian-Turkish border.

MARTIN: President Trump did say explicitly, we're not going to go into Syria.

BOWMAN: You know, he did, Rachel. And I'm guessing what he meant was large numbers of combat troops. But there are some American troops close to the front lines in Syria, special operations forces like Green Berets and Navy SEALs, helping these local forces. And some of these Americans clearly are in combat. But a lot of them, again, are trainers. And already you're seeing well over a thousand Americans in Syria, including a Marine artillery unit just north of Raqqa to help in that final assault.

MARTIN: Give us a sense of the overall picture of the effort against the Islamic State. The war is still going on in Iraq and Mosul, as you talked about. There's the push into Raqqa in Syria. Any sense as to what could bring this to some kind of conclusion?

BOWMAN: Well, the fighting is going to continue for quite some time. Officials say it could go well into the fall - some saying maybe well into next year, this fight against the Islamic State. Now, Iraqi forces are making progress in Mosul, but it's tough going. You have snipers, car bombs, house-to-house fighting. And it's hard to use airstrikes there. Remember - back in March, the U.S. bombed this building in Mosul and killed a couple of hundred civilians. The Iraqis were taking sniper fire, and the U.S. had to go in and help out.

But that shows you the difficulty of using airstrikes inside a large city. There are a lot of civilians here, so that's a problem as well. And it's going to be slow going in Raqqa to even be facing the same challenges - a lot of civilians, hundreds of thousands; snipers; car bombs, you know, well-dug-in defenders. So it's going to take some time.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.