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Free Fire | | Counterterrorism, Middle East

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On February 7th and 8th in the Khusham province of Syria, the United States military killed approximately 100 members of a pro-Assad militia, according to U.S. military officials.

Airstrikes were called in after about 500 attackers launched a coordinated assault, by firing mortars 5 miles east of the Euphrates river, targeting U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The mortar fire covered the advance of artillery and tanks. The U.S. responded after 20-30 tank and artillery rounds landed within 500 yards of U.S. allies.

U.S. officials said that the airstrikes were launched in “self-defense.” U.S. military officials called their Russian counterparts and warned them about the buildup. The Russians reportedly told the Americans that U.S.-backed forces would not be harmed. The U.S. and Russia back opposing forces in the area, which has necessitated a substantial deconfliction effort.

While the U.S. defended the SDF against pro-Assad forces the same cannot be said about the SDF coalition member the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has come under repeated attack from Turkish forces.

Recently the YPG and Turkey clashed in the city of Afrin. Turkish forces are attempting to push YPG forces back from the Turkish border and capture the city.

The city of Manbij is the farthest west U.S. troops are stationed with the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State. This means so far, no U.S. troops have been endangered by Turkish strikes, even while the Turkish offensive has undermined U.S. efforts against the Islamic State.

The U.S. has largely avoided taking any steps that could be interpreted by the Turks as defending the YPG, but the rhetoric is escalating.

On February 6th, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who directly threatened Manbij calling it a “Bastion of terrorists” and demanding that U.S. forces leave. The Americans refused, with Lt. Gen. Paul Funk saying the U.S. would respond aggressively if attacked.

Funk was one of two senior American generals who traveled to the front lines just outside of the city of Manbij to meet with the SDF’s Manbij Military Council on February 7th.

Turkey’s military offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurds, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric against the U.S., continues to raise questions about Turkey’s role as NATO member and U.S. ally.

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