Syrian anti-IS force receives first US armoured vehicles
Syrian fighters battling the Islamic State group received armoured vehicles from the US for the first time, a Washington official and a spokesman for the force said on Tuesday.
The delivery appears to be the first under President Donald Trump's administration, though the original decision pre-dates his 20 January inauguration, and comes after he gave the US military 30 days to deliver a plan to "defeat" IS.
US military spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said the armoured sports utility vehicles had been provided to the "Syrian Arab Coalition", a grouping of Arab factions within the Syrian Democratic Forces.
He said the decision was made "using existing authorities, in the interest of helping protect our partnered force from the (IS) improvised-explosive device threat."
"The decision was made by military commanders, and has been in the works for some time," he added.
Washington has long partnered with the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces alliance to battle IS in Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict since an anti-government uprising that began in March 2011.
But SDF spokesman Talal Sello said Trump's administration had now promised "extra support".
The SDF has been a key partner for the US in the fight against IS in Syria, with Washington supplying light weapons and special forces military advisers during former president Barack Obama's administration.
Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said the decision to supply the vehicles pre-dated the Trump administration, but on the ground it was being interpreted as a sign of new support.
"Before we used to receive light weapons, ammunition... with these armoured vehicles we've entered a new phase in the (US) support. It's a sign," Sello added.
"We have had meetings with representatives of the new administration, and they promised us extra support."
Pahon said the move "was a ground-level tactical decision... based on the threats the SDF might be facing."
"We are providing them with the tools to face whatever the current threat is."
The SDF has been battling since November to oust the militants from Raqqa city, the group's de facto capital in Syria.
They are 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of the city, but have come under frequent attack by IS suicide car bombers, a favoured tactic of the militant group.
The US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq has also carried out airstrikes in support of the SDF as it battles IS.
The SDF was formed in October 2015, after the YPG Kurdish militia had already scored victories against IS in northern Syria with air support from the US-led coalition.
Trump has said his focus in Syria will be battling IS, and on Saturday he signed an executive order giving the US military 30 days to devise a plan to "defeat" the militant group.
The order, which called for a "comprehensive strategy and plans for the defeat of [IS]", was seen as meaning more US forces and military hardware moving into Iraq and Syria.
At least 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began, and successive rounds of international efforts to find a political solution to the war have failed.