WASHINGTON, March 6, (Agencies): US-backed ground operations against Islamic State remnants in eastern Syria have been put on hold because Kurds who had spearheaded combat against the extremists have shifted to a separate fight with Turkish forces, US officials said Monday.
The public acknowledgement of what Col Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, called an “operational pause” is the most explicit sign yet that Turkey’s intervention in the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin is hindering the US effort to finish off IS in Syria. For weeks, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other US officials have called Turkey’s operation a “distraction” from the anti-IS campaign.
Mattis also has said the US understands that Turkey has an active Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders and that it views Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to be a terrorist organization. The US says the YPG is separate from the Kurdish fighters inside the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, but Turkey disagrees.
Turkey launched its air and ground offensive in the Afrin enclave on Jan 20, conducting airstrikes and artillery strikes on a daily basis. It is just one dimension of a complex war in Syria that includes a range of local opposition fighters, extremist elements, Syrian government troops, proxy forces and military units from Russia and the United States.
Manning said that although ground operations against IS in the Euphrates River Valley have been temporarily suspended, US airstrikes against IS holdouts in that area are continuing. He said one airstrike Sunday near the city of Abu Kamal destroyed two IS supply routes.
“The nature of our mission in Syria has not changed,” Manning said. He said the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are comprised of Kurdish as well as Arab fighters, remain “our major partner” in completing the war against IS in Syria. Another Pentagon spokesman, Maj Adrian Rankine-Galloway, said he could not offer an estimate of the number of Kurdish fighters who have left the Euphrates River Valley battlefield to join the fight against Turks in Afrin.
“They’re not fighting ISIS any more, and that basically meant that they’re not taking territory back from ISIS as quickly as they had been in the past,” Rankine-Galloway said. He added that the pause in offensive ground operations has not resulted in the loss of any territory retaken from IS. Meanwhile, a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters announced on Tuesday it would redeploy around 1,700 members from front lines against the Islamic State group to a Kurdish enclave under Turkish attack.
Turkey and allied Syrian rebels are waging a weeks-long offensive on Afrin, which is held by a Kurdish militia that makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces. At a news conference on Tuesday, the SDF announced it would pull fighters out of areas of eastern Syria, where they have been fighting pockets of IS jihadists, in order to shore up defences in Afrin. “We took the difficult decision to pull our forces out of Deir Ezzor province and battlefronts against DAESH (IS) to head to the Afrin battle,” said Abu Omar al-Idlibi, an SDF commander, saying his fighters numbered 1,700.
Idlibi spoke to AFP in the football stadium in Raqqa, which the SDF recaptured from IS in October with help from the US-led international coalition. US and coalition officials have said they will not get involved in the Afrin fighting and expressed concern it would detract from the SDF’s operations against IS. “We fought DAESH. We helped the coalition in Raqqa, but without the coalition defending its partners,” Idlibi said. “Our people in Afrin are our priority. Protecting them is more important than the international coalition’s decisions.” He said his units, mostly made up of Syrian Arabs from the north of the country, were to be redeployed in the coming week. Ankara and allied Syrian rebels launched their offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin on Jan 20.
They have since captured 40 percent of the enclave, including a strip along the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Tuesday. SDF commander Sevger Himo told AFP: “These forces leaving will affect the war against DAESH” even if fighting will continue on the Deir Ezzor front. Kurdish men and women fighters had grown increasingly reluctant to fight IS in recent weeks, as fellow Syrian Kurds came under attack in Afrin. The Pentagon said on Monday that Kurdish fighters had left the Deir Ezzor front, leading to an “operational pause” in their offensive against IS.
An SDF commander earlier told AFP that hundreds of fighters from Afrin had returned to defend their relatives. The Observatory says more than 170 civilians have been killed since Jan 20. Turkey denies the reports and says it takes the “utmost care” to avoid civilian casualties. The monitor says 300 pro-Ankara rebels and nearly 320 Kurdish fighters have also lost their lives. Since pro-regime fighters were deployed to help the Kurds in Afrin last month, some 58 of these “popular forces” have been killed, it said.