By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
United States special operations forces in northeastern Syria have been quietly visiting local villages to help provide medical care to communities which have seen little health care in the wake of years of war.
The visits are done in partnership with the Syrian Defense Forces, (SDF) which operate in the region alongside the US in a years-long effort to root out any ISIS fighters.
The medical visits are seen by the US as part of the effort to work with SDF to bring stability to the area, so ISIS cannot take hold, a defense official directly familiar with the program told CNN. Overall, there are about 900 US troops in Syria.
US officials insist the humanitarian effort is not “mission creep,” because the focus is to provide another means to counter ISIS. But it is a step beyond the initial troop deployment by former US President Donald Trump, aimed at his goal of seizing oil field revenue in the region.
US officials are emphasizing the medical work is led by SDF, and US forces work under them. However, security remains a sensitive question given ISIS, Russian and regime forces operate at times in the region. All US troops provide their own security.
The US special operations personnel participated in two medical visits in Deir Ezzor in northeast Syria in November, according to Major Charles An, a spokesperson for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Levant which provides the US troops.
The area has seen extensive fighting in recent years. The troops examined and treated almost 200 patients at hospital locations and helped distribute medical supplies, according to An.
Local residents had been traveling several hours to the nearest health care providers because Deir Ezzor largely only had first aid services after years of conflict.
So far there have been seven medical visits in the last year including the two from last month, according to An.
While US special operations forces have long done humanitarian relief missions in conflict zones and underserved communities, the efforts in Syria come as the Pentagon has been rethinking the use of forces in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This summer all special operations activities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt were consolidated under a renamed headquarters now called Special Operations Joint Task Force-Levant. The renaming is an effort to recognize terrorist and violent extremist organizations are operating across broad areas which require a more regional approach according to Lt. Col. Tony Hoefler, spokesperson for US Special Operations Command Central.
But what remains unresolved so far is a comprehensive way ahead on how and when US troops might conduct counterterrorism drone strikes from so-called “over the horizon” bases far from where targets are located in the wake of a strike in Kabul that inadvertently killed several civilians just as the US was withdrawing from the country. Several defense officials say the issue of a long term way ahead on those types of missions in still ongoing.
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