Who says the United States got nothing for the star-crossed, $500 million train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels that fell apart last year? It apparently bought enough goodwill with one rebel group that they escorted U.S. special forces troops back into the northern Syrian town of Rai on Friday, just hours after they’d been asked to leave by other Syrian rebels.
Those Syrian Arab fighters, who had pushed into Syria from southern Turkey last month with the help of Turkish special forces and American warplanes, accused the Americans of supporting nearby Kurdish forces, who who have emerged as rivals in the hydra-headed fight to retake land from the Islamic State. Washington has openly supported the Kurds in their fight, providing equipment and embedding teams of commandos with them on the front lines in northern Syria, but that’s soured tensions with Turkey of late.
The brief standoff in Rai underscores the competing agendas on the ground as the United States, Turkey, and several Gulf Arab countries pour money and resources into supporting a bewildering range of groups battling ISIS and the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad in the country’s five-year old civil war. Russia has also thrown its military into the fight, nominally to fight terrorists, but also to prop up Assad’s crumbling power.
American largesse with one rebel faction in particular, Liwa Al-Mutasem, seems to have helped defuse a potentially embarrassing situation. The group received two American airdrops of weapons earlier this year, and has managed to consolidate other Syrian Arab rebel groups under its umbrella in northern Syria.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written widely on Syrian rebel groups, told Foreign Policy Friday that fighters from Liwa al-Mutasem accompanied the Americans out of town, then escorted them back in after Turkish officials told the other Free Syrian Army rebels to stand down. The rebels who objected to the American presence have since been moved to other areas of the battlefield.
“These groups got a very stern message from the Turks,” after the Friday incident, Lister said, as “Turkey has realized it is in their interests to have the U.S. involved” on the ground in northern Syria. That’s in part a reflection of gradually improving U.S.-Turkey ties after the summertime coup attempt in Ankara and Istanbul threw a wrench in bilateral relations.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama approved the deployment of about 300 American special operations troops to Syria, but it’s not clear how many are currently on the ground.
Washington was caught off guard by the FSA’s push into the Syrian border town of Jarablus late last month. Turkish and American military officials had talked about a joint operation in Syria for months, but the original assault took place while the proposal languished at the White House and with no warning to the Americans, according to U.S. officials.
Pointedly dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield,” the invasion by about 1,000 FSA fighters and Turkish armor and artillery units was aimed not just at pushing ISIS off the Turkish border, but also at preventing Kurdish forces from consolidating control over a contiguous stretch of territory along Turkey’s southern flank.
If the FSA and the Turks — now accompanied by American forces — move further south toward the ISIS stronghold of Bab, they’ll effectively snuff out any remaining Kurdish hopes of uniting strongholds east of the Euphrates with the Kurd enclave to the west of the river.
As ISIS is feeling renewed pressure from the Turkish and American-backed rebels, Washington’s air war has claimed another terrorist leader. The Pentagon announced Friday that a Sept. 7 airstrike near Raqqa killed “Dr. Wa’il”, also known as Wa’il Adil Hasan Salman al-Fayad, who “operated as the minister of information for the terror organization and was a prominent member of its Senior Shura Council,” spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement. The announcement comes just days after American officials announced they had killed Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesman for the group and a key leader for plotting and inspiring external terror attacks.
The American involvement, however small, is another sign that after months of tension between Washington and Ankara following the failed military coup against the government of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, relations between the two NATO allies are slowly improving. Vice President Joe Biden visited Turkey last month, and a long of American military brass has traveled to Turkey in recent weeks for talks.
On Friday — the same day that American commandos pushed into Syria — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar before the NATO Military Committee in Chiefs of Staff conference in Split, Croatia, to talk about the fight against ISIS, according to Dunford’s office.
Photo Credit: Huseyin Nasir /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images