Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, conduct a live fire exercise alongside U.S Soldiers in Syria on March 25, 2022. Photo by Spc. William Gore via DVIDS.
Although in remission, the Islamic State group’s malignant campaign of nihilistic violence is not yet defeated. For that reason, some 900 US troops remain in Syria, working alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, as part of an operation to combat the group’s sleeper cell remnants in the country.
Yet, nothing is ever simple in the Middle East, a region of perpetually overlapping and often conflicting interests between various countries and factions — even between NATO allies.
Thus, as Turkey conducts an offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters, US forces risk being caught in the crossfire. According to Voice of America, a group of US soldiers were within 300 meters of a base targeted by a Turkish airstrike on Nov. 22.
“Recent airstrikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than 10,000 ISIS detainees,” Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Nov. 23, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group.
U.S. Soldiers assigned to Comanche Troop, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, engage with the local populace in Northeast Syria on March 16, 2022. Photo by Spc. William Gore via DVIDS.
Following a deadly bombing in Istanbul on Nov. 13, Turkey, a NATO member, launched an offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters in mid-November called Operation Sword-Claw. Since then, Ankara has unleashed waves of airstrikes against suspected militant sites in Syria and Iraq. In an address to Turkish Parliament last month, President Recep Erdogan suggested the possibility of a ground campaign into northern Syria.
"While we press ahead with air raids uninterrupted, we will crack down on terrorists also by land at the most convenient time for us," Erdogan said. "Turkey has the power to identify, catch and punish terrorists who are involved in attacks against our country and nation, and those helping them, inside and outside our borders."
Kurdish groups denied responsibility for the Nov. 13 Istanbul bombing.
U.S. Soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1/163rd Combined Arms Battalion, make an M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles operationally ready in northeast Syria on Feb. 1, 2022. Photo by Spc. William Gore via DVIDS.
The prospect of a Turkish ground attack spurred US forces on Friday to suspend joint patrols in northern Syria alongside SDF forces. Likewise, the SDF’s top commander, Mazloum Abdi, said the threat of Turkish airstrikes had “temporarily paused” counter-Islamic State group operations in northern Syria, The Associated Press reported.
"Due to our forces' preoccupation with addressing the Turkish occupation, they cannot continue their mission of pursuing ISIS cells," Abdi said in a statement, Voice of America reported.
"Currently, we're forced to be preoccupied with confronting Turkish aggression," Abdi reportedly said.
The AP and Agence France-Presse reported that US forces have since resumed joint patrols with the SDF in northeast Syria. According to the AP, the patrols secured a camp containing many women and children linked to the Islamic State group, as well as a prison that holds extremists.
“Immediate de-escalation is necessary in order to maintain focus on the defeat-ISIS mission and ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground,” said Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary. “We will continue to discuss with Turkey and our local partners maintaining cease-fire arrangements."
A local in a small village holds the American flag in Northeast Syria on Mar. 10, 2022. Photo by Spc. William Gore via DVIDS.
The SDF are America’s main on-the-ground ally in Syria against ISIS. Ankara, however, doesn’t distinguish between the SDF and another Kurdish militia in Syria called the People's Protection Units, or YPG. Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Marxist-separatist militancy, which the US, Turkey, and the European Union have designated a terrorist group.
According to the US State Department’s website, Washington designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Unlike Ankara, however, the US does not consider the YPG a terrorist group. Against Ankara’s protests, the US partnered with the YPG to combat the Islamic State group in Syria.
In 2015, between 25,000 and 50,000 YPG fighters joined a coalition of other non-Kurdish groups to form the SDF, the Congressional Research Service reported. That year, about 50 US Special Forces soldiers deployed to Syria to advise the SDF. Over the years, the US footprint in Syria has expanded, and so has America’s partnership with the SDF.
Soldiers with Alpha Troop, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, and 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, pull security near their M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle in Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory via DVIDS.
Following the Islamic State group’s territorial defeat in 2019, the SDF formed an autonomous zone in northern Syria. Despite US partnership with the SDF, the YPG’s influence within the group remains a point of contention with Ankara, which considers the SDF part of the PKK’s terror network.
According to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report: “When addressing questions about the supply of U.S. arms and participation in military operations, U.S. officials generally emphasize the diverse composition of the SDF, even though the YPG reportedly maintains a predominant role in command decisions and key combat actions.”
On Nov. 22, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that Turkey suffers “a legitimate terrorist threat” and Ankara’s leadership has “every right to defend themselves and their citizens."
Even so, Kirby suggested Turkey’s current offensive against a broad swath of Syrian Kurdish groups could obstruct joint US-Kurdish operations to combat Islamic State group diehards.
"It might force a reaction by some of our SDF partners that would limit, constrain their ability to continue to fight against ISIS," Kirby said.
Read Next: Finding Freedom: Syria in the Wake of ISIS
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