Damascus: US troops stretched across cities and towns west of the Euphrates River in Syria have come under attack by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, according to an exclusive report published today by CNN.
The US troops fired back, but there were no casualties — adding yet another dangerous twist to the multi-faceted Syrian conflict, slowly approaching its seventh anniversary next March.
Both state-run media outlets and those of the Syrian opposition failed to report the latest development, waiting to see how Ankara and Washington will respond first.
Nikolaos Van Dam, a Dutch scholar and Syria expert, told Gulf News the latest developments were “dangerous.”
“Turkish-US relations will suffer if Turkey does not reign in its Syrian military allies in their actions against the US military on the ground,” he said.
However, Washington may end up prioritising its relationship with Turkey after a complete Daesh victory, Van Dam suggested. The US has a history of using the Kurds as pawns in wider regional political games and then tossing them, and their aspirations for statehood, aside.
“What will the US do with the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], which they support at the moment? Once Daesh is expelled from northern Syria, the US may give priority to its relations with Turkey, which wants the PYD [Democratic Union Party] to be removed from its border region.”
US troops have been stationed in northern Syria, helping train and arm the SDF, an all-Kurdish quasi-army receiving direct military assistance from Washington. Since taking office in January, President Donald Trump has invested heavily in the SDF, providing them with sophisticated weapons, mine-detectors, intelligence, and funds, seeing them as his finest and most capable ally in the Syrian battlefield. His priorities are to eradicate Daesh from Syria, reward the Kurds for their battlefield victories, and eject both Iran and Hezbollah from Syria — but he is seemingly no longer interested in regime change in Damascus, letting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin handle the country’s political endgame.
Earlier this summer Trump suspended military aid to all Syrian rebel groups previously on US payroll since the Obama Administration — with the notable exception of the SDF — claiming that they were costing the administration too much money and proving futile in battle when compared to the Kurds.
This week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even said he would cancel the post of Special US Envoy for Syria, allowing the Russians to hammer out an endgame that is tailor-made to suit the ambitions of the Kremlin.
The Turks are furious with Trump’s cosying up to the Syrian Kurds.
They have constantly warned that any further Kurdish autonomy on the Syrian side of the border would ignite the same aspirations by its own significant Kurdish population.
The PKK — a Kurdish militia designated by the US as a terrorist organisation — has been engaged in a three-decade guerrilla war against Ankara.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cuddled up to the Russians since mid-2016, allowing them to retake the strategic city of Aleppo in December 2016 in exchange for allowing Turkey to invade two Syrian cities on the border, Jarablus and Azaz, and another in the Syrian heartland in Al Bab, purging all three of Daesh and creating a buffer zone that prevents linkage of Kurdish cities east of the Euphrates with Afrin, which lies west of the river.
When the SDF retook the city of Manbij northeast of Aleppo in August 2016, Erdogan’s troops immediately opened fire, creating a strong rift between Washington and Ankara, which has never healed. This week’s attack sounds hauntingly similar to the assault on the SDF last August, coming on the heels of overwhelming SDF victories in Raqqa, the former capital of Daesh’s so-called caliphate, which is being overrun by Kurdish troops.
“Recent incidents have occurred in territories primarily under the control of Turkish-backed fighters,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. “We are engaged with Ankara and other parties to address this danger.”
The attack occurred while US Secretary of Defense James Mattis was visiting Turkey for talks with President Erdogan, but no mention of it was made by either side.
Earlier this summer, US troops were attacked in Syria by similar Turkish proxies, according to coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, prompting him to remark that coalition troops “reserve the right to defend themselves.”
US troops have been firmly based in northern Syria since last March, setting up seven military airports and performing drills carrying the US flag on their armoured vehicles.