US Centcom commander visits Syria’s north-east
ONTARIO - A top US commander travelled to north-eastern Syria, meeting US special operations forces deployed in the area and leaders of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
US Army General Joseph Votel, chief of the US Central Command, spent several hours on May 21st at various undisclosed locations where US military advisers are stationed.
Votel’s trip came as the United States aims to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and took place concurrently with the arrival of 250 additional US special operations forces in Syria whose mission is to train and advise local troops.
“I left with increased confidence in their capabilities and our ability to support them,” Votel said in an interview with the Associated Press, insisting that the United States was taking the right approach by backing SDF troops in the fight against ISIS. “I think that model is working and working well,” he added.
Votel’s visit demonstrates US support and commitment to the Syrian Kurds, whom the United States considers its only reliable ally on the ground capable of countering ISIS.
“It’s becoming less and less surprising… to see American generals, commanders meeting with Kurdish forces,” said Renad Mansour, a fellow and researcher on Kurdish affairs at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
A few days after Votel’s visit, the SDF leadership announced the launch of an offensive against ISIS in which the US-backed group would target the northern parts of ISIS’s de facto capital Raqqa and then move on the inner city.
The US-led coalition battling ISIS is to provide air cover for SDF troops trying to advance against ISIS positions. Prior to the announcement, the international coalition dropped leaflets over Raqqa warning residents to flee the city.
Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the coalition, recently made his second visit to Syria and met with Kurdish officials ahead of the battle. McGurk had spent two days in northern Syria in late January.
Raqqa is mostly populated by Arabs and observers see risks with the SDF — led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — attempting to extend control into non-Kurdish areas. Although the Kurds might be more interested in consolidating control over their areas or connecting cantons with one another, the United States is trying to focus on Raqqa, Mansour said.
He argued that the Kurds might be using the Raqqa battle “as a bargaining chip for solid guarantees for their own purposes”.
“Unlike the Iraqi Kurds, [Syrian Kurds’] guarantee for international support is very weak and very unstable,” he said.
Some Kurds have voiced opposition to entering Raqqa. Young Syrian Kurds living in areas ruled by the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration have avoided mandatory military service.
“The Kurds have no need for this [Raqqa] battle,” one Kurdish resident told the Syria Direct news outlet. “Our blood will be spent for a battle that is not ours to fight.”
The Syrian opposition is also critical of the Raqqa battle and the fact that it will be carried out by mainly Kurdish forces. The opposition was further provoked by Votel’s visit and support for the SDF.
“The Sunni Arabs are the ones who should lead the liberation of Raqqa,” said Samir Nashar, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, the major political opposition group.
Nashar said the United States failed to form a Sunni Arab force capable of being a ground partner, referring to the unsuccessful CIA-led training programme that was suspended last October. He blamed its failure on Obama’s decision to fight only ISIS and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The Syrian opposition is only waiting the departure of the Obama administration,” he added.