The Pentagon said Monday it has sent additional US troops into northern Syria in a show of strength aimed at deterring rival powers from targeting each other instead of the Islamic State group.
Defence Department spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the troops have in recent days entered Manbij city, a former IS bastion that US-backed forces liberated last year.
"We have brought in some additional forces to be able to do this reassurance and deterrence mission," Davis said, without specifying the number of US troops deployed.
Wahington wants to make sure competing powers congregating in and around Manbij remain focused on hunting IS - and do not attack each other.
The United States backs a Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight IS, and these fighters pushed the extremist group from Manbij last year.
Around the same time, Turkey entered into northern Syria and joined the anti-IS fight, while also working to keep in check the Kurdish fighters, which it views as terrorists.
Turkey has threatened to strike SDF forces if they do not withdraw from Manbij.
||The US military currently has about 500 mostly special-operations troops in northern Syria on a train-and-advise mission to help local forces tackle IS
Last week, Russian and Syrian regime troops headed to Manbij and are now positioned just outside the city, very close to US forces.
That move might be beneficial for the US, as it could stop Turkey and Kurdish forces - both of whom are US allies - from fighting there.
"This is obviously a really complicated situation," Davis said.
"We have made visible actions in deploying US forces as part of the coalition in and around Manbij to reassure and deter — that’s to deter parties from attacking any other parties other than ISIS itself."
The US military currently has about 500 mostly special-operations troops in northern Syria on a train-and-advise mission to help local forces tackle IS.
Davis said commanders have the ability to request extra troops if needed.
Their whereabouts is usually a closely guarded secret, so the sight of US armored-vehicle convoys in Manbij, many flying large US flags, was remarkable.
The US military has meanwhile carved out a new role in Syria, with small numbers of troops now positioned to prevent an escalation of violence among an array of militias and other forces that have converged on an increasingly complex battlefield.
Pentagon spokesman Davis said the US troops are on the western outskirts of Manbij to "reassure and deter," and are making themselves visible by flying American flags.
It is neither an offensive nor defence role, he said, but a mission designed to keep a lid on tensions that risk creating new levels of violence in northern Syria.
"It's a visible reminder, for anybody who’s looking to start a fight, that the only fight that should be going on right now is with ISIS," Davis said.
||Manbij is a flashpoint because Turkey claims that Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers a threat to Turkey are operating in the city
'Reassure and deter'
Manbij is a flashpoint because Turkey claims that Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers a threat to Turkey are operating in the city, despite US denials.
Also in the area are Syrian regime forces backed by Russia as well as American-supported Syrian Arab fighters.
The "reassure and deter" mission, as described by Davis, does not reflect a fundamental shift in the US approach to combating IS in Syria.
It appears to have emerged as an improvised way to prevent the Syria conflict from escalating and to keep Turkey and Syrian opposition groups focused on fighting IS rather than each other.
Davis said the deployment of small numbers of US troops in and around Manbij was done under authorities that existed prior to President Donald Trump taking office in January and therefore did not require new approval from Washington.
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Asked whether this is a new mission for US troops in Syria, Davis said, "It is, absolutely." He said the deployments are temporary.
The spokesman said the new US presence is meant in part to "reassure that ISIS has been driven from Manbij," adding, "Manbij is liberated and there’s not a need for further fighting there."
He did not mention Turkey, but the Turkish government has insisted that Kurds are still in Manbij and that it intends to eject them by force if necessary.
Asked whether the "reassurance" is aimed at Turkey, Davis said, "We’re concerned about anybody who views Manbij as needing to be liberated."
He added, "I'll let you draw your conclusions" who that might be, among the foreign forces involved there.
He declined to say how many US troops are involved, but said they are small in number — fewer than "dozens."
They are in addition to an undisclosed number of US special operations troops who have been working inside Manbij for months to help a local coalition, known as the Manbij Military Council, to hold the city and restore governance.
||The volatile situation in and around Manbij is worrisome for the US on several levels, including a concern that additional conflict there could detract from US efforts to mold a Syrian opposition force capable of recapturing Raqqa
Eyes on Raqqa
The volatile situation in and around Manbij is worrisome for the US on several levels, including a concern that additional conflict there could detract from US efforts to mold a Syrian opposition force capable of recapturing Raqqa, the IS self-declared capital. The US wants to include Kurds in that offensive, but Turkey strongly opposes their involvement.
Syrian regime forces and their Russian partners represent an additional layer of complexity.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of US and coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, said last Wednesday that within the previous two days Syrian regime forces had advanced to “essentially rifle-range or hand-grenade range” of U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition fighters who are holding the area around Manbij.
“It’s very difficult and very complicated,” Townsend said.
The White House, in consultation with Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, is considering options for accelerating the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.
Key to that decision is the role of Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish force known as the YPG. The Pentagon considers the YPG its most effective local partner in Syria and has suggested arming them directly, despite Turkish government opposition.