U.S. pledges nearly $100 million to support Syrian opposition as anti-ISIS offensive begins

A newly formed U.S.-backed Syrian rebel alliance launched an offensive against the Islamic State in the northeast province of Hasakah on Saturday, a day after the United States said it would send Special Operations forces­ to advise insurgents fighting the jihadists.

It was the first declared operation by the Democratic Forces­ of Syria since the alliance of a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and several Syrian Arab rebel groups announced its formation last month.

Fighting in Hasakah had begun after midnight, a spokesman for the alliance said. A group monitoring the war reported fighting and coalition airstrikes in the area. The campaign would “continue until all occupied areas in Hasakah are freed from Daesh,” a spokesman for the alliance’s general command said in the video, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State. He urged residents to stay away from militant-controlled areas of Hasakah.

The U.S. decision to station a force of up to 50 military advisers in Syria comes after it dropped ammunition to rebel groups in northern Syria several weeks ago. Washington’s strategy in Syria has shifted from trying to train fighters outside the country to supplying groups headed by U.S.-vetted commanders.

Meanwhile, the United States ramped up its support for the opposition on Saturday with a pledge of nearly $100 million in fresh aid. The new U.S. funds will support local and provincial councils, civil society activists, emergency services and other needs on the ground inside Syria.

The U.S. promise of cash, which American officials say brings to nearly $500 million the amount pledged to the opposition since 2012, coincided with the completion of international talks to pursue a new peace effort involving Syria’s Iranian-backed government and opposition groups. World powers and regional rivals convened in Vienna to seek a solution to the 4 1/2 -year-old conflict in Syria that has escalated since Russia intervened a month ago with an intense air campaign.

The negotiations left open the thorny question of when Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad might leave power, and it was unclear whether he or disparate rebel groups fighting to topple him would sign on to any peace proposal. A new round of talks was expected to take place within two weeks.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the additional $100 million in U.S. assistance on Saturday at the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain.

Blinken suggested that Russia’s military intervention in Syria, although widely seen as a strong sign of support for Assad, could end up incentivizing Moscow to work toward a political transition that removes him from power.

“Russia cannot afford to sustain its military onslaught against everyone opposed to Assad’s brutal rule. The costs will mount every day in economic, political and security terms — but at best only to prevent Assad from losing,” Blinken said. He predicted a “quagmire” that draws Russia deeper into a conflict alongside Syria’s allies Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and that alienates Sunni Muslims both in the region and in Russia itself.

The decision to send U.S. troops to Syria comes a month after Russia began launching airstrikes against insurgents in the country. Russia has come under criticism for airstrikes that seemed to be randomly targeting any opposition to the Assad regime.

On Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 64 people, including 28 children, had been killed by Syrian army and Russian air raids in the northern province of Aleppo in the past 24 hours. The group said Syrian government forces backed by Russian air cover intensified bombardments against insurgents throughout the country.

A Syrian member of parliament on Saturday called the U.S. decision an “act of aggression.”

“When America sends ground forces into Syrian territories without an agreement with the Syrian government it becomes an intervention and aggression,” Sharif Shehadeh told the Associated Press by telephone. “Will America allow Russian ground forces­ to go into America without an agreement? I think the answer is no.”

Shehadeh said that the troops will have no effect on the ground but that Washington wants to say it is present in Syria. “What has happened to make America realize, after five years, that it should send between 30 and 50 military advisers?” he said.

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