U.S. Special Operations forces have begun partnering with Turkish troops and a contingent of Syrian opposition groups for a new operation in northern Syria, defense officials said Friday.
The move comes just weeks after Turkey launched a blitz operation over the Turkish border, seizing the northern city of Jarabulus and injecting a new dynamic into the five-year-old conflict.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement that the contingent of Special Operations forces assisting the Turkish and Syrian forces around the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Rai was sent at the request of the Turkish government. It is unclear how many U.S. troops have been sent to assist in the operation, though a video posted online Friday depicted about a dozen U.S. troops driving out of Al-Rai as Syrian fighters called them “pigs” and “dogs.”
“U.S. personnel operating with Turkish forces and Syrian opposition forces will provide the same train, advise and assist support they have been providing to other local partners in Syria fighting [the Islamic State],” Davis said.
The United States’ new partnership with the Turks and what the Pentagon calls the “Vetted Syrian Opposition” comes as the United States has sought to ease tensions between the Turks and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that had been fighting the Islamic State near the Turkish-Syrian border before Turkey’s new offensive. Since the spring, U.S. Special Operations forces have been embedded with Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Democratic Forces, helping the fledgling groups seize a number of key towns from the Islamic State in northeastern Syria. Turkey, however, considers the YPG an extension of the terrorist group the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and has made it well-known that it was uncomfortable with Kurdish forces so close to its border.
As Turkish ground forces entered Syria, the Pentagon sought to deconflict the Kurds and Turkish troops, and requested the former pull back east of the Euphrates. After small skirmishes with the Turks, the Kurds withdrew.
With U.S. forces now embedded with the Turks and still embedded with the Kurds, the Pentagon appears to have set up a line of communication between the two groups to ensure they remain focused on fighting the Islamic State and not each other.
In April, the White House authorized up to 300 Special Operations troops in Syria. According to a U.S. defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, the new detachment of U.S. forces with the Turks was requested by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and was approved by President Obama. It is unclear whether the new detachment of troops alongside the Turks will increase the overall number of Special Operations forces in Syria.
In the past, the Pentagon has insisted that the troops are not on the “front line” and have instead remained in an advisory role, helping local forces call in airstrikes and assisting them plan operations. In August, Syrian Democratic Forces backed by heavy U.S. and coalition airstrikes, took the key town of Manbij. Although no U.S. troops have been killed in Syria, several have been wounded.
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.