Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered U.S. troops to set up observation posts in northern Syria with a dual purpose -- to warn Turkey of threats and to stop the Turkish military from attacking U.S.-backed opposition forces.
In an informal session with Pentagon reporters last Wednesday, Mattis said the personnel at the observation posts would come from the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops already in Syria on train, advise and assist missions and would not require bringing in additional forces.
"We are putting observation posts in several locations up along the northern Syrian border because we want to be the people who call the Turks and warn them if we see something coming out of an area that we're operating in," Mattis said, referring to the U.S. troops working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to eliminate the last remnants of the Islamic State in Syria around the town of Al-Tanf near the Iraqi border.
"We are going to track any threat we can spot going up into Turkey," he said. "That means we'll be talking to Turkish military across the border."
But he also acknowledged that the observation posts would give a measure of protection to the SDF. "What this is designed to do is make sure that the people we have fighting down in the MERV [Middle Euphrates River Valley] are not drawn off that fight and that we can crush what's left of the geographic caliphate," Mattis said.
The Turkish military has occasionally shelled the SDF. Last month, the SDF halted offensives against Al-Tanf out of concerns that Turkey was moving against elements of the group in Manbij on the Turkish border. The U.S. has begun joint patrols in Manbij with the Turks to ease tensions.
Turkey has maintained that the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), considered the most effective fighting force within the SDF, is linked with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.
Mattis said the Turks "don't like our relationship" with the YPG. "I understand where they're coming from. But we do not say that YPG is the same as PKK."
Turkey's concerns about the YPG are also distracting the SDF from the final push against ISIS, Mattis said.
He said the SDF has lost thousands of troops in the effort to drive ISIS from the region, but they "got distracted by the instability up around Afrin and Manbij, and so they were not staying fully focused."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.