CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – Turkey’s assault on Kurdish fighters around the northwest Syrian town of Afrin is now the top concern for U.S. military leaders in the region, who have sounded increasingly alarmed over the past three days.
“Yeah, it certainly is. Definitely,” Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters Wednesday aboard a military aircraft traveling from Kuwait City to the United Arab Emirates.
Senior leaders from U.S. Central Command, which Votel leads, and U.S. European Command are watching to see if Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan will make good his threat to send forces eastward from Afrin toward Manbij.
“I don’t know. Our object is to prevent something like that from happening,” said Votel, who said U.S. leaders in the region are in “constant contact” with their NATO ally. “We’re going to put the full effort here into supporting these discussions so that we can prevent that. That’s not in our interest.…We’ve got to stay focused on ISIS, but also we’ve got to address the very legitimate concerns that Turkey has.”
The talks have so far produced no changes in Turkey’s optempo, he said. “Generally, it’s stayed pretty much the same as it’s been the last several days.”
Frenetic Kurdish supporters are saying U.S. leaders are walking too fine a line with Turkey. They note that U.S. military leaders have pledged repeatedly to support the U.S.-backed and -trained Syrian Democratic Forces until a Geneva peace process can do its work. Votel repeated that pledge this week but spoke of the crisis in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Caveating that I’m not in the room, my view on the feedback that I’ve had is that it’s been frank, it’s been candid, it’s been militarily professional,” he said. “I think that’s the right way it needs to be.”
Later on Wednesday, a State Department spokesman issued a statement: “As the secretary [Rex Tillerson] said on the way to Paris, we’ve asked Turkey to limit its operation, to show restraint, and let us see if we can work with them to create the kind of security zone they might need. Yesterday in Paris the secretary addressed the situation with Foreign Minister [Mevlut] Cavusoglu. While they did not discuss any specific, formal proposals, the secretary did reiterate our desire to work with Turkey to address its legitimate security concerns and the importance of limiting the impact of the operations on civilians.”
In just the past three days, senior military leaders here in the region have sounded increasingly alarmed. Initially, U.S. war commanders in Baghdad, Syria, and Kuwait urged their coalition partners to remain focused on the ISIS fight, and said they were worried the Afrin operation might draw SDF fighters away from the remaining battles in southern Syria. On Tuesday, commanders had started affirming that the Afrin battle had begun to affect coalition operations.
“Absolutely,” said Col. Owen Ray, the director of operations for Special Operations Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, in Iraq and Syria, in a rare interview.
Neither Ray nor Maj. Gen. Dirk Smith, deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, would say just how their operations were being affected and whether any SDF fighters already had left for the north.
On Wednesday, Votel said Turkey’s incursion could jeopardize Syria’s future, including the stability operations he wants up and running soon, with international support, to help Raqqa and other affected areas recover.
“The geographic challenge of getting to these areas that need help mean that we have to cross borders to get there and do other things. These kind of tensions could impact the ability to get laid down in there,” he said. “This is clearly something that has an impact on this — as does the Assad regime.”
In the South, Fighting to the Death
ISIS-held territory across Syria and Iraq has shrunk by 99 percent, CENTCOM leaders say. On the wall map at the war’s operational headquarters here at U.S. Army Camp Arifjan, it’s down to just a few red blobs. In one particular blob near the Iraq border, the remaining ISIS fighters in the Middle Euphrates River Valley are fighting to the death against U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, two senior U.S. commanders said Tuesday.
“We have them against the ropes and they are under duress,” said Ray. “The intensity of the fight is extreme…and they’re throwing whatever they have left at us.”
Ray said ISIS fighters, running low on arms, munitions, and communications gear, are using human shields and tactics that include firing from courtyards.
Just hours later, officials at U.S. Central Command would announce that an airstrike a few days earlier, on Saturday, had killed roughly 150 ISIS members gathered in the valley.
“Those that are left…they’re going to stay home and fight to the death,” said Smith, who is the senior officer at this Kuwait headquarters. “There’s significant fighting going on; it’s just to a different scale.”
While the senior commanders of Inherent Resolve spoke to reporters, Votel attended talks between the U.S., Iraq, and Kuwait. The Americans have organized a series of trilateral meetings with Iraqis and their neighbors, in a bid to deepen relationships.
Votel spent Sunday in Baghdad for meetings and briefings with Iraqi, U.S., and coalition leaders. On Monday, the general flew to Raqqa, where for the first time he toured the heart of the destroyed Syrian city. Accompanied by leaders from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development and three reporters, he walked through former ISIS torture chambers and visited the city’s first re-opened school. Votel also met with local forces and civic leaders, while aid workers visited a camp for internally displaced persons, roughly two hours north, toward Aleppo and near Turkey.
With Raqqa liberated, the American public may think the ISIS war is over, but senior military leaders insist it is not. It may be a slow death for ISIS, in those remaining red blobs on the map that are outside of regime-held territory. As in previous city battles of Raqqa and Mosul, Smith said the coalition is being careful and deliberate with their firepower in the Euphrates River valley to avoid civilians or damaging infrastructure. U.S. commanders want the Syrian population to be able to return to their homes as quickly as possible.
“It’s hard fighting. They’re still a determined enemy,” said Smith.
A Message to Iran
Votel, meanwhile, proceeded to the UAE port city of Fujairah, located on the eastern side of the peninsula that divides the Arabian Sea from the Persian Gulf. Dozens of U.S naval vessels gathered just down the coast from the Strait of Hormuz. Here, the United States is running a large exercise to practice moving supplies and arms across the peninsula by land, should Iran ever block the strait. U.S. Navy personnel, Marines, and private shipping crews are offloading military vehicles and equipment from cargo ships, convoying them over the peninsula, and embarking them on other ships for transport around the Persian Gulf. Earlier editions of this multinational exercise in roll-on/roll-off logistics have been held in other Middle Eastern countries, but this year CENTCOM planners decided to hold it at the Strait to send a message, and demonstrate the capability, to Iran.