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Published On: Fri, Mar 10th, 2017

U.S. Deploys Marines to Syria for Raqqa Operation Into Highly Disputed – Congested Theater

Christof Lehmann (nsnbc) : The United States deployed U.S. Marines to northeastern Syria to provide artillery support for local forces in the upcoming assault against Islamic State in Raqqa. Turkey criticized the U.S. for supporting Syrian YPG/YPJ forces which Turkey designates as PKK-linked terrorists. So far, the Syrian government has not officially criticized the deployment but complained that Turkish forces targeted Syrian troops in Manbij. Turkey, for its part, has launched major operations against the PKK.

US troops in Syria's Aleppo province (archives)

US troops in Syria’s Aleppo province (archives)

The deployment of U.S. Marines to the region prompted disputes between Turkey and the United States. One of the central issues is the question whether U.S. troops should back the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which are dominated by the PYD and its military wings, the YPG and the all female YPJ, or whether the U.S. troops should back Turkish-led fighters under the umbrella of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA). The dispute happens as Turkish, Syrian, Russian, and U.S. troops and the various factions are preparing the assault on an estimated 4,000 fighters of the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh) who are controlling the city of Raqqa. Any of these troops, the newly deployed U.S. Marines included, are entering a highly contested and highly congested theater. The contingent of U.S. Marines arrives Thursday. Their role is to provide artillery support, most probably for the SDF which already have U.S. Special Forces and “advisers” deployed among their ranks.

After the arrival of the U.S. troops on Thursday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkish forces would strike the PYD’s YPG/YPJ forces in Manbij. This would imply that Turkey would carry out strikes against forces which already have Special Forces from Turkey’s NATO ally USA amidst their ranks. However, Cavusoglu argued that the Kurdish occupation of the town of Manbij and or Raqqa are a hindrance to what he describes as Turkish efforts to carve out a safe zone in northern Syria. Cavusoglu gave no deadline though for an attac but accused Washington of being confused in its planning for an attack on the IS stronghold of Raqqa.

U.S. officials stated that  a contingent from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit has deployed in northern Syria within 32 kilometer artillery range of Raqqa. The contingent is equipped with M777 Howitzers, capable of firing 155mm shells. The deployment mirrors a similar move last year in Iraq when artillery-equipped U.S. Marines arrived ahead of the start of the assault to take Mosul. The U.S. Defense Department (Pentagon) has so far limited its statements about the number of Marines to describing them as “a couple of hundred Marines”. The Pentagon has declined formally to confirm the deployment or to detail any location for the Marines or the numbers on the ground.

Joint press conference held by SDF commanders and deserting FSA officers. (archives)

Joint press conference held by SDF commanders and deserting FSA officers. (archives)

The deployment marks an escalation of U.S. military involvement in Syria. Several hundred Special Operations troops have been advising the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Last weekend, some of those Special Forces, a hundred U.S. Rangers, deployed in Manbij in a bid to deter clashes between YPG fighters and Turkish-led fighters. The deployment comes as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump debates a Raqqa plan drafted by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the U.S. commander overseeing the campaign against the Islamic State.

However, on Thursday the top U.S. commander in the Middle East signalled that there will be a larger and longer American military presence in Syria, allegedly to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State group and quell friction within the complicated mix of warring factions there. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told Senators that he will need more conventional U.S. forces to insure stability once the fight to defeat Islamic State militants in their self-declared capital of Raqqa is over. The U.S. military, he said, can’t just leave once the fight is over because the Syrians will need help keeping IS out and ensuring the peaceful transition to local control.

The establishment of a Kurdish State with breathing straw access to the Mediterranean. Map plottings by Major (r) Agha H. Amin. (2012)

The establishment of a Kurdish State with breathing straw access to the Mediterranean. Map plottings by Major (r) Agha H. Amin. (2012)

“I think as we move towards the latter part of these operations into more of the stability and other aspects of the operations, we will see more conventional forces requirements,” Votel said. Until recently, the U.S. military presence in Syria was made up of special operations forces advising and assisting the U.S.-backed Syrian troops. It will be critical, Votel said, to get humanitarian aid, basic working services and good local leaders in place in Raqqa so that businesses can return and the city can move on.

Votel also said that the U.S. is looking for options to ease the tensions with Turkey over the plan to use U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds in the fight to oust Islamic State fighters from Raqqa. However, he didn’t offer any details on what those options could be.

Surprisingly, the Syrian government has not lodged a formal complaint against the latest deployment. U.S. troops are operating in Syria without a mandate from the UN Security Council or an “official” invitation from Syria. It may be that an “unofficial” or classified agreement has been reached involving Syria, Russia and the USA, but so far no verifiable information about such an agreement has been made available to the press.

However, there have been Syrian complaints about Turkish activities. A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Turkish military forces targeted positions held by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) allied forces in Manbij with artillery and rockets. The Turkish shelling reportedly targeted border guard checkpoints and claimed several lives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, for their part, met in an attempt to bolster Turkish – Russian relations. Adding complexity to the highly volatile situation is that the Syrian PYD and its military wings, the YPG / YPJ are traditional allies of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s party (PKK). The PKK as well as the PYD have functioned as a Russian / Syrian / and in part Iranian version of what NATO forces would describe as stay-behinds (or proxies).

Aftermath after Turkish "anti-terrorist" operations against Kurds in July 2016. Courtesy HRW

Aftermath after Turkish “anti-terrorist” operations against Kurds in July 2016. Courtesy HRW

It is noteworthy that Russian State media consistently criticized Turkey’s crackdown against the PKK after Turkey unilaterally ended peace talks and the ceasefire with the PKK in 2015.

Russian State media would also cite Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports about Turkey’s targeting of non-combatant civilian Kurds. However, Russian State media have (surprise) experienced a “near total blackout” with regard to Turkey’s crackdown against the PKK since Moscow and Ankara began mending ties in late 2016. Reports about the latest – ongoing – crackdown are also absent.

Turkey launched a major operation against the PKK in the Lice district of the southeastern province of Diyarbakır has been continuing with the participation of some 7,000 soldiers, special forces police officers and village guards. The operation is ongoing. Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, along with Turkish police chief Selami Altınok and Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Yasar Güler, visited Lice in order to obtain information about the operation. Turkish government sources reported that some 19 PKK militants were killed in the operation that started on March 5. Soylu, Altınok and Güler arrived in the province late on March 8 and reportedly visited the headquarters where the operation is being coordinated. It is at this time uncertain whether the casualty figures are downplayed or how many non-combatant civilians have been targeted, killed, injure or harassed during the ongoing operation.

CH/L – nsnbc 10.03.2017

About the Author

- Dr. Christof Lehmann is the founder and editor of nsnbc. He is a psychologist and former independent political consultant on conflict, conflict resolution and a wide range of other political issues. In March 2013 he established nsnbc as a daily, independent, international on-line newspaper. He can be contacted at nsnbc international at nsnbc.wordpress@gmail.com

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