Fatisah: US forces on the ground in northern Syria are helping a major offensive against the Islamic State group in its stronghold of Raqa province, Kurdish-Arab fighters battling the jihadists say.
Near the frontline north of the IS bastion of Raqa city, an AFP photographer saw US soldiers climbing onto a low rooftop carrying US-made anti-tank missiles.
"These are US special operations forces and this is why you cannot follow them or take many pictures," said a fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which announced on Tuesday an assault on the jihadists north of Raqa.
Leaning on a partially destroyed home in the village of Fatisah which was recently seized from IS, SDF field commander Hawkar Kobane told AFP that "US forces are taking part in this operation" alongside his own troops.
"On the rooftop of this house, there are US forces using (anti-tank) TOW missiles to fire on the explosives-rigged cars that Daesh is using to attack the SDF," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The SDF has also received air support from the US-led air coalition bombing the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
And this week, the first of 250 members of the US special operations forces were to arrive in northeast Syria to support the fight, joining dozens of advisers already on the ground.
Special operations forces are known to lend support to and train foreign armies.
Washington has insisted the soldiers sent into Syria are not combat troops.
Asked about the men seen in Fatisah, US defence officials did not dispute that they were American special operations forces.
The troops appeared to be equipped with US-issued sidearms and uniforms, and at least one could be seen with a badge of the US flag on his chest.
The United States has publicly disclosed that about 300 of its elite commandos and support personnel are on the ground in northern Syria, where they are working with the Kurdish and other anti-IS partners.
"They are continuing to advise and assist local forces in the ongoing fight against ISIL," Pentagon spokesman Matthew Allen said, using another name for IS.The AFP photographer saw as many as 20 US soldiers in Fatisah on Wednesday and heard them communicating in English with each other.
They refused to speak to journalists but generally appeared less wary than usual about the media presence.
The US soldiers could be seen climbing onto pickup trucks fitted with heavy machineguns and driving across the swathes of agricultural plains that make up northern Raqa province.
Other US soldiers surveyed territory alongside SDF forces identified by the yellow patches on their arms.
"The American forces present here have a lot of experience," Kobane said.
"We will take advantage of their experience to fight terrorism and capture the other villages as quickly as possible with as few casualties as possible."
Another SDF field commander, Baraa al-Ghanem, said US fighters were "present at all positions along the front... They are taking part on the ground and in the air".
"We have a joint operations room with the coalition. We also have special weapons, both heavy and light, and we are facing the problem of mines," he added.
The US forces on Wednesday could be seen accompanying a special unit within the SDF known as the "counter-terrorism forces".
The two forces entered a building on the edge of Fatisah used as the town`s school, reportedly to carry out a training session on using US weaponry.
Kurds play a dominant role in the US-backed SDF, providing the core of the forces that have pushed back IS in the country`s northeast.
The SDF has a total of about 25,000 Kurdish fighters and around 5,000 Arab fighters.
Washington is pushing to bring more Arab forces into the group.
The Syrian war erupted in early 2011 after Bashar al-Assad`s forces launched a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and has since claimed more than 270,000 lives.