Elissa Slotkin, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense, said the coalition’s only target is the Islamic State (ISIS), explicitly ruling out attacks on Manbij city, which has been secured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkish officials have repeatedly declared that they intend to attack the SDF in Manbij after they capture al-Bab city.
“We are all about hitting ISIS where there is ISIS. If there’s no ISIS, that’s not our mandate,” Slotkin told reporters in Washington on Saturday. “So that is an important distinction, [one] we have always made in any kind of conversation we’ve been having with any ally on Syria.”
The American official clarified that while the US opposes an attack on Manbij, Washington has not told Ankara that it will cut off support in al-Bab if Turkey directly or indirectly attacks Manbij.
“I am not aware of any conditionality, any kind of quid-pro-quo,” she said. “We are having those conversations and there is support that’s being provided. Currently, liaison teams are working with the Turks every day.”
Turkey expanded its intervention force in Syria after 14 Turkish soldiers were killed in al-Bab, deploying 5,000 additional soldiers. There are now roughly 8,000 Turkish soldiers fighting in Syria.
“So obviously they’re having conversations about al-Bab, about strategy and approach,” Stolkin explained. “We have provided some ISR [Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support on al-Bab. We have, in areas north of there, provided ground forces and the whole suite of air support.”
The Assistant Secretary said there are now 50,000 SDF soldiers fighting ISIS in northern Syria. “That’s a big number and that is not the number it was a year ago,” she said.
Stolkin added that the SDF is rapidly scaling up, explaining that as the polyethnic alliance “liberates new areas from ISIS, people did not like living under ISIS and they volunteer.”
“We have seen that borne out, and ever since the Manbij operations, frankly, we’ve seen a significantly larger number of Arabs come into the fight [enlisting in the SDF],” Stolkin continued.
The US official reasoned that increased diversity in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ ranks would help in the looming battle for Raqqa city. “I think about 50% at this point is sort of Arab-Turkoman [and] the whole host of other folks besides the Kurds, and I think that’s a pretty healthy number given the importance of the coming fight in Raqqa, which is an Arab town.”
The Assistant SecDef for International Security Affairs further said that the United States would work to reinforce agreements reached between Russia and Turkey. “I think that’s a positive thing. Anything that helps promote transparency and safety [in Syria] is better than not.”
Meanwhile, Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, told ARA News that the Manbij is critical to fulfilling the aspirations of Turkey and its allies.
“Manbij is the key staging point for a future campaign against Raqqa by [Turkey-backed] Euphrates Shield rebels,” Heras explained. “If the Turks gain control over Manbij via their Syrian proxies, it would mean that Turkey –not the SDF– would be in a position to assault Raqqa.”
“The Turkish military wants the United States to send special forces and advisers to embed with its proxy Syrian groups,” the Mideast researcher continued. “The US wants to see whether the Turkish military can execute the operation on Al-Bab as the primary military actor.”
“The Turks are having grave difficulties because Turkish airpower and advisers do not have the same high level of coordination with their Syrian proxies as the US military has with the [Kurdish-led] SDF,” Heras argued.
“The Turks believe that the US military is their silver bullet to vanquish ISIS in al-Bab, which is the key to solidifying a future safe zone in northern Syria that is controlled by Turkey,” Heras concluded. “There are high stakes for the Turks in al-Bab.”
Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News
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