U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that French special forces arrived in Syria over the past two weeks to help boost U.S.-led efforts in the country, and that a “re-energized effort” in southeast Syria would begin in the days ahead.
Speaking to senior lawmakers in Washington on April 26, Mattis responded to a question about whether the United States was planning on pulling out of Syria – something President Donald Trump has said would happen “very soon.”
Trump on Tuesday said the United States wanted to “leave a strong and lasting footprint” in the country, appearing to again to walk back an earlier promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria that appeared to have been reversed within a week.
There are currently around 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, and U.S. Central Command recently released figures showing that 5,500 U.S. and foreign contractors work alongside U.S. troops in both Syria and Iraq.
Right now, “we are not withdrawing,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Asked if he supported pulling all troops out of Syria once ISIS is destroyed, Mattis said: “I’m confident that we would probably regret it” if the U.S. does not contribute to a long-term holding force in Syria.
“Re-energized effort” in the MERV
On Tuesday, Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the U.S.-led Coalition fighting Islamic State said that some Syrian Democratic Forces fighters were returning to the Middle Euphrates River Valley in southeast Syria.
SDF troops had earlier moved to the mainly Kurdish enclave of Efrin in northwest Syria to defend against an ultimately successful Turkey-led offensive there that the Pentagon said had “distracted the SDF” from the fight to defeat ISIS in the MERV.
“I will not go into details,” Dillon said, “but there are some encouraging signs … that more combat power is returning to the Middle Euphrates River Valley to really turn it on to the ISIS element.”
Mattis said that efforts in the MERV would quickly ramp up.
“You’ll see a re-energized effort against the middle Euphrates River Valley in the days ahead and against the rest of the geographic caliphate,” Mattis said.
French reinforcements in Syria
“You’ll see increased operations on the Iraqi side of the border, and the French just reinforced us in Syria with special forces here in the last two weeks,”he said.
The Defense Post could not immediately confirm the deployment from French government sources, but an update on French overseas military operations earlier on Thursday did not mention any additional troops.
“In Syria, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the Coalition continues to support the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting against the last pockets of Daesh,” the French Army said.
“The situation has not changed significantly this week,” the release added.
A French diplomatic source told The Defense Post that the fight against ISIS is the top priority of France. A longstanding member of the Global Coalition Against Islamic State, France, along with the U.S. and the U.K., took part in the April 14 missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons-related facilities.
Mattis also alluded to recent calls for more support for the Coalition ground campaign from regional allies.
“This is an ongoing fight right now,” Mattis said. “We’re continuing the fight, and we’re going to expand it with more regional support.”
On April 17, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reaffirmed his country’s willingness to deploy troops to Syria after reports that Trump’s administration was seeking to assemble an Arab force, including troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to help stabilise Syria.
Mattis confirms what Macron wouldn’t?
On the face of it, Mattis’s disclosure of a French military reinforcement in Syria appears to be confirmation of what a Syrian delegation said they were told at a March meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
On March 29, representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) met Macron, and at a press conference after the meeting delegates said that France would “reinforce” it’s military presence in the Manbij area in order to prevent a Turkey-led attack on the SDF.
However, Macron’s office said later that France was not planning a new military operation in northern Syria “outside the international coalition against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
On April 3, Rêzan Gilo, a senior official in northern Syria said that U.S. and French troops were operating in the region. According to Kurdistan 24, Gilo said that the troops are in Manbij and Raqqa, among other locations in northern Syria.
“Sometimes the NATO states deny the existence of their forces in the region to avoid any tension,” Gilo said.
In late March, there were a number of unconfirmed reports of French troops in Tal Abyad, a town bordering Turkey that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 19 threatened to include in an expanded Turkish military operation in northern Syria. The previous week there were unconfirmed reports that Turkey dismantled sections of its border wall in the area, an action that in the past has presaged cross-border military operations.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to expand its campaign to other Syrian Kurdish-held territory as far as the Iraq border in the east, as well as against Manbij, where U.S. forces have been deployed since March 2017 to reassure the SDF and deter hostilities between factions on the ground.
Control of Manbij was handed to the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council in August 2016 after the SDF captured the town from Islamic State.
On March 28, Turkey’s MGK national security council said that if the mainly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) does not leave Manbij, Turkey would “not hesitate to take initiative by itself as it did in other regions,” an apparent reference to the Operation Olive Branch military campaign against Efrin, and to its Operation Euphrates Shield that in 2016 and 2017 captured Syrian territory to the north and west of the town.
The following day, on March 29, a bomb in the northern Syrian town of Manbij killed two Coalition personnel – one American and one British – and injured five others. On April 4, Pentagon spokesperson Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said Sergeant Matt Tonroe, a U.K. special operations service member and Master Sergeant Johnathan J. Dunbar were “conducting a mission to kill or capture a known ISIS member when they were struck by an improvised explosive device.”
“The international coalition has increased the number of its forces in Manbij,” Mohammed Abu Adel, the commander of Manbij Military Council told AFP on April 3, adding that they were “taking the Turkish threats seriously,”
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency claimed as many as 300 additional U.S. troops had been deployed north of Manbij near the front line that divides territory held by Turkey-backed Syria rebels and the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council, but the Pentagon official said this estimate was overblown.
On April 4, commenting on a military.com report from two days earler, that a “planned reinforcement” had taken place in Manbij, Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told The Defense Post that he could not discuss movements of forces within Syria but that “commanders are delegated the authority and the responsibility to position the number of people and resources needed to accomplish the mission and to protect themselves.”
“Occasional modifications to force size would therefore be normal,” Pahon said.