US general visits Kurdish-led SDF troops north Syria during launch of Raqqa operations

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US Gen. Joe Votel, Centcom commander visitin SDF forces in northern Syria. File photo

ARA News 

QAMISHLO – The newly appointed Gen. Joe Votel, Centcom commander and journalists visited the Kurdish areas of Syria to meet with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and US military advisors on Saturday, the day SDF forces captured a village from ISIS in an operation near Raqqa.

On 17 May, rumours emerged that high-level US officials met with Kurdish leaders in Kobane, the city that became a symbol for standing up against the Islamic State (ISIS) and accomplished victory over the radical group. However, the US State Department denied reports that U.S. Special Envoy Ambassador Brett McGurk met with Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Muslim in Kobane.

On Saturday, reports emerged that Gen. Joe Votel, Centcom commander, accompanied by reporters from CNN, AP, and US Department of Defence website, visited anti-ISIS fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Hasakah province and Kobane, beside meeting members of the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) and US military advisers on Saturday for 11 hours.

Both Kobane and Hasakah have an airstrip used by US-coalition forces to bring in supplies and support in its war on ISIS.

“In Syria today with Gen. Joe Votel, Centcom commander, who visited anti-ISIS fighters and US military advisers,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius posted on Twitter on Saturday evening, most likely just before leaving Syria.

Speaking to ARA News in Kobane, Kurdish official Idris Nassan said that the visit is significant sign of American support for SDF forces. 

Previously, the Pentagon had fears that the Kurds might opt to work with the Russians after Turkey pressured the United States to stop their cooperation with the Kurds. But the visit shows the importance of the US alliance with the Kurdish-led SDF forces.

“It means that US military support for SDF will continue and US seriously plans a long-term coalition with the most reliable forces on the Syrian ground. I think that the US interest in Kurds, which is reflected in these high-ranking visits, will soon lead to accept their desire to liberate west of the Euphrates and postpone battle of Raqqa,” Nasan told ARA News.

He added that previously US officials also visited PYD-leader Salih Muslim in his house, but this could not be verified by other sources, and most likely was a different visit of US military leaders. The SDF spokesperson could not confirm the meeting at the time.

“The public visit by General Votel to Syria, accompanied by American journalists, demonstrates that the United States views SDF-controlled areas as a safe space,” Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security told ARA News.

“General Votel is one of the most powerful US military leaders, which makes him a high value target. The United States would not authorize his trip unless the US military and intelligence had absolute confidence in the trustworthiness of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition to secure the area where he was visiting,” he added.

“Plain and simple, the United States has established a territorial sphere of influence in the areas of northeastern Syria controlled by the SDF,” Heras told ARA News.

Syrian Kurdish politicians see the visit as a sign that the recently launched operation for Raqqa is serious.

“The visit of US military officials to Rojava has almost become a routine, especially since the US is leading the international coalition against Daash [ISIS], which heavily relies on Kurdish fighters,” Amjad Othman, the leader of the Kurdish Reform Movement [member of the Kurdish National Alliance], said in an interview with ARA News.

“I think this particular visit is related to the start of the liberation of Raqqa, and I think this high-level visit of this General shows that the liberation of Raqqa will not be easy or simple, but it shows there will be a long-lasting alliance against Daash [ISIS], until it’s expelled from this region,” he added.

“While ISIL [ISIS] leaders are reduced to audiotapes in the dark, Centcom commander GEN Votel was in Syria preparing push to Raqqa,” US Special Presidential Envoy for the coalition against ISIS Brett McGurk wrote on Twitter, mocking the recent audiotape of Islamic State spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg 

Source: ARA News 

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