French forces on the ground in Syria

Sunday 19/06/2016
French soldiers at an army base in Jordan

DAMASCUS - French and German forces are reported to be the lat­est newcomers to step into the Syrian quagmire, joining an array of foreign troops and mercenaries fighting with different parties in the raging conflict.

Reports that dozens of German and French special forces had en­tered northern Syria to participate in the battle to evict the Islamic State (ISIS) drew the ire of the Syr­ian government but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) view the new allies’ presence as part of the international effort to defeat the terror group.

An official source at the Syrian Foreign Ministry blasted the alleged French and German deployment near Kobane and Manbij in Aleppo province, considering it a flagrant violation of the principles of the United Nations’ charter and “overt unjustified aggression” against the sovereignty and independence of the country.

“No one can dupe us by saying they are part of the drive to com­bat terrorism. Combating terrorism in a legitimate and effective way requires collaboration with the le­gitimate Syrian government whose army and people are fighting ter­rorism on every inch of Syrian ter­ritory,” the source said in a public statement.

The SDF, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen mi­litias, considers the latest foreign ground involvement as a natural es­calation of the global battle against ISIS.

“The participation of foreign troops on the side of Manbij mili­tary council falls within the frame­work of the international effort to combat the terrorists. Their task ba­sically consists of providing logisti­cal support to the local forces, train them and assist them in devising military plans and fighting strate­gies,” a highly placed SDF source said.

“These foreign military experts also play a key role in identifying and detecting the outposts and con­centration centres of ISIS fighters, which are then hit and destroyed from the air.”

The source acknowledged the presence of “friendly forces” from France, the United States and Brit­ain in northern Syria, stressing that “these do not take part in direct fighting”.

“They mainly read the pictures provided by surveillance planes, overlook the implementation of military plans and lead small units whose mission is to pave the way for raids by unleashing heavy fire­power,” the source said. “In ad­dition to that they are part of the general command and work on dismantling the many mines and booby traps that are left behind by ISIS.”

Foreign experts are also based near Tishreen dam in eastern Alep­po, where the operations command room is located. “They coordinate the battles with foreign units de­ployed on the front lines but these are present at a distance from ISIS booby traps, which mainly hit ad­vanced (local) forces,” the source added.

There is no official confirmation of the number of foreign ground forces operating in northern Syria, except for about 250 US special forces who took part in the fighting in rural Raqqa in mid-May and later diverted towards Manbij.

Media sources imbedded with the SDF estimated the number of French forces at 150 and the Brit­ish at 100. There are strict SDF in­structions to avoid taking pictures of these forces after photos of US special forces wearing badges of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) triggered an uproar.

French and British forces remain under media blackout despite ac­knowledgement by their govern­ments of their presence in Syria in parallel with air forces operating with the US-led international coali­tion. French Defence Minister Jean- Yves Le Drian said France has been providing air cover, weapons and military advice to the SDF in the ef­fort to defeat ISIS.

Kurdish official Idriss Naasan brushed aside reports that French forces chose Mashta Nour Hill south of Kobane to set up a mili­tary base. “I doubt very much that a base would be built in that loca­tion. I have information confirming French presence in other locations in southern rural Kobane and in Tishreen dam,” Naasan said.

The Americans are reportedly planning to establish a logistics sta­tion south-west of Kobane, accord­ing to an official in the Kurdish city. “They have identified an Arab vil­lage in the area near Sarin in east­ern rural Aleppo to set up a logistics centre for their experts in the area, which might eventually develop into a military base or airstrip,” said the official, who asked not to be named.

It would be the third US station after the ones at Rmeilan airport east of Qamishli and the former headquarters of Brigade 93 of the Syrian Army in rural Raqqa. As such, the Americans would be de­ployed in strategic points along the border with Turkey.

The reported involvement of Ger­man forces was denied by the Ger­man Defence Ministry.