- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Russian and Syrian jets nearly hit U.S. forces in northern Syria on Tuesday when they attacked positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a critical American ally in the effort to expel the Islamic State from Syria, the top U.S. general there said Wednesday.
It was a situation that U.S. commanders have been trying to avoid since Russia deployed dozens of aircraft to Syria in late 2015. There are about 500 American troops are on the ground training Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in the run-up to the assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, and the Russians have shown themselves to be indifferent as to who, or what, they strike with their unguided bombs.
The latest near miss occurred near the city of al-Bab, just northeast of Aleppo, which Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies recently took from the Islamic State, leaving them in a stare-down with Syrian regime forces who sit just south of the city.
The jumbled mess of competing forces in and around al-Bab has increased the likelihood of mistakes or miscalculations. Turks, their Free Syrian Army allies, ISIS, Syrian regime forces, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition and Kurdish forces are “literally within hand grenade range of each other,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday.
Townsend, who commands U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, said these groups are “bumping up against each other” around the city, adding that “three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid square, so it’s very difficult and complicated” to know just who is where.
The Russian and Syrian planes, apparently, had seen some Islamic State forces recently move out of the area and hit the U.S. proxies thinking they were ISIS forces, Townsend said. The Syrian Arab force took casualties, but the Russian planes peeled off once their American counterparts used a long-established hotline to warn them they were bombing friendly forces. American advisory forces were fewer than five miles away, but were unharmed.
The deadly bombing run marks the second time in weeks that Russian planes have bombed friendly forces around al-Bab. Last month, they mistakenly bombed Turkish soldiers near the city, killing three.
The general sought to tamp down tensions, saying that “the coalition is encouraged” by the progress against the Islamic State by the Turkish military and their proxies. He added that the United States asks “all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS, and not toward other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.”
His comments were a diplomatic way to express American alarm over Turkish threats to move from al-Bab on to the nearby city of Manbij, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces hold ground. The SDF is made up of about 23,000 Arab and 27,000 Kurdish fighters, who are expected to be at the forefront of the push on Raqqa later this year. Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters to be aligned with the Kurdish PKK terrorist group, and paints them both with the same brush.
Last August, Turkey launched a military operation in northern Syria to push the Islamic State off its southern border and keep Kurdish forces from advancing beyond the Euphrates River. The United States has provided some air support for the Turkish forces when they have attacked Islamic State positions, but have not participated in any of their clashes with the SDF.
Complicating matters are the closer ties Ankara has forged with Moscow in recent months, after a frigid period in the wake of the shooting down of a Russian jet in late 2015 by Turkish F-16s. Ilnur Cevik, an advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan, said on Monday that “without Russia’s support, we would not have been able to conduct a successful operation in al-Bab.” He also said that Turkey’s forces are moving toward the Euphrates River, where the SDF is based.
Foreign Policy traveled to northern Syria late last month with Townsend and head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel, who were checking in with local SDF commanders and the U.S. Army Special Forces training Arab and Kurdish forces for the Raqqa fight. Both leaders have said that they support arming the Kurds for the fight.
Speaking at a small American outpost near Manbij, Townsend said that before the push for Raqqa can fully kick off, the whole SDF — Arab and Kurdish alike — are “going to need additional combat power.” While the 50,000-strong force faces “the problem of supply, the problem of training, and problems of positioning the force,” those things can be worked out fairly rapidly, “if we get the authorities we need” from Washington, he said.
An analysis from the Institute for the Study of War said if the Turks moved on Manbij, it would “derail the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS and create opportunities for al Qaeda to expand further in Syria.”
Ankara does not want armed Kurds, whom they consider terrorists, to take part in the fight for Raqqa, but U.S. military leaders have said that they are the most reliable fighting force on the ground in Syria.
“There’ll be Kurds attacking Raqqa,” Townsend said Wednesday. “They’re Syrians, that’s who’s going to go liberate Raqqa.”
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images