U.S. Stryker combat vehicles have been spotted in northeastern Syria, where special operations troops have been on the move to head off potential clashes among a number of rival forces converging on the flashpoint town of Manbij.
Photos of the eight-wheeled Strykers and up-armored Humvees flying U.S. flags were posted on social media over the weekend after the U.S. regional command confirmed that elements of the 500 mostly Special Forces troops in northeastern Syria had moved toward Manbij.
The presence of the armored Strykers in Syria had not previously been known, but Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said on a visit last month that the U.S. was considering moving artillery and other heavy equipment into the country to aid local partners in an eventual assault on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, about 71 miles southeast of Manbij.
After the photos appeared online, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, went on Twitter to confirm that U.S. troops are moving into the Manbij area.
Dorrian said the U.S. "has taken this deliberate action to reassure coalition members and partner forces, deter aggression and keep [the] focus on defeating ISIS."
Last week, the Pentagon confirmed that a "humanitarian convoy," accompanied by armored vehicles from the forces of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad backed by Russia, had entered Manbij with the agreement of the U.S.
"We have noticed and observed and are aware of the fact that these humanitarian convoys sponsored by the regime and Russia have been moving into Manbij and that they have some armored equipment with them," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said at a briefing last Friday.
Davis said the convoy's safe passage had been worked out through the same channels used by Russia and the U.S. to "deconflict" their air operations over Syria. The movement of the convoy "has not changed anything we are doing, which is we continue to focus on defeating ISIS."
In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon last week, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of CJTF-OIR, also addressed the need of the various and sometimes conflicting forces and factions to remain focused on defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in what he called the increasingly "complicated battlefield" in northeastern Syria.
Last week, Russian warplanes bombed positions of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) west of Manbij and inflicted casualties in what was believed to be a mistaken airstrike. The incident underlines the need for coordination, Townsend said.
"Essentially, three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid square," he said. "It's very difficult and complicated."
ISIS held Manbij until the militants were ousted last August after a long siege by the SDF led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units. NATO ally Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist group linked to the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, demanded that the YPG withdraw from Manbij, which is about 12 miles west of the Euphrates River, and take positions east of the river.
A Manbij Military Council that the U.S. said is led by Syrian Arabs was formed to police and govern the city, but Turkey has charged that YPG elements remain and threatened to attack them.
The Turkish military, working with another local faction called the Free Syrian Army, has launched Operation Euphrates Shield to clear border areas and prevent ISIS infiltration. Last month, Turkish troops and the FSA ousted ISIS from the town of al-Bab, west of Manbij, after a long siege, and Turkish officials have threatened again to attack the YPG in Manbij.
In his briefing to the Pentagon last week, Townsend said of the YPG fighters, "I've talked to their leaders and we've watched them operate, and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey. In fact, that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey.
"And I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to, or have supported any attacks on, Turkey from Northern Syria over the last two years," he said.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said last week that Turkey and the U.S. "must not face off against each other because of Turkey's fight against other terrorist groups" such as the YPG in Syria, Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported.
"We do not want any of our allies to stand with terrorist groups. We stated earlier that Turkey will hit the YPG unless they withdraw from Manbij," Cavusoglu said.