U.S. Troops Reportedly Caught Up In Turkish Artillery Attack In Syria (Updated)
The incident underscores just how risky the situation is becoming for American troops as Turkey targets their local Syrian Kurdish partners.
Details are still limited, but a report has emerged that U.S. special operations forces working with the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, have found themselves under attack from the Turkish military in northeastern Syria. Turkey launched a major operation into the area, targeting the U.S.-backed forces, just two days ago. This incident comes shortly after U.S. Army General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that authorities in Turkey knew where American personnel were situated "down to explicit grid coordinate" in order to avoid such mistakes.
Newsweek was first to report that American forces had gotten caught in the fighting on Oct. 11, 2019, citing unnamed Pentagon and Iraqi Kurdish officials with knowledge of the situation. The U.S. special operators were reportedly occupying a position on Mashtenour Hill in the Syrian city of Kobane, which sits right on the other side of the border with Turkey, when Turkish forces began shelling the area. It is unclear, at the time of writing, whether any U.S. personnel suffered any injuries. ISIS terrorists notably laid siege to Kobani in 2014. U.S.-backed local forces, with significant help from American and other U.S.-led coalition aircraft, were able to liberate the city the following year
"The Turkish military is fully aware – down to explicit grid coordinate detail – of the locations of U.S. forces," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley had said at a press conference earlier on Oct. 11, 2019. Ahead of the beginning of Turkey's intervention, which Ankara is calling Operation Peace Spring, at least one U.S. outpost had raised an American flag in place of one representing the Kurdish People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG, the group that has provided the bulk of the manpower for the SDF.
There have been conflicting reports of how many U.S. personnel may be in the path of Operation Peace Spring and how many may have already relocated to safer areas to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Standing beside General Milley at the press conference, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had said that less than 50 special operations forces had withdrawn from "two small outposts" near the Syrian-Turkish border.
U.S. officials had previously told reporters than anywhere from 15 to 100 personnel had moved to other locations further away from the fighting. It's also not clear how directly connected troops still in the field are to commander centers with their own links to Turkish forces, who would be able to help bring a halt to any inadvertent attacks.
"This decision was made to ensure American troops were not caught up in the fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces," Esper had said. "I will not place American servicemembers in the middle of a long-standing conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. This is not why we are in Syria."
It is important to note that U.S. forces had been very visible working to keep the SDF separate from Turkish forces, as well as Turkish-supported groups in Syria, known collectively as the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, or TFSA, since 2017. If the reports of U.S. personnel still occupying positions in Kobani are true, it would indicate that at least some American forces remain well within the areas where Turkey is now prosecuting Operation Peace Spring.
It may also reflect the difficulty U.S. forces could easily be having in exfiltrating from those areas now as the Turkish operation has expanded. It could be increasingly precarious for American troops to use established road networks at present and it might be too dangerous for helicopters or other aircraft to fly in and extract them with risking an accidental confrontation. U.S. personnel have been relying, at least in part, on contractor-operated helicopters for mobility in the region and casualty evacuation services, highlighting how detached many of these positions in Syria are from traditional support chains.
President Donald Trump had also announced his desire to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria in December 2018, but it is not entirely clear how much progress there has been on this front. There are reports that about half of the 2,000 American personnel that had been in the country at the end of 2018 are now gone. U.S. personnel do clearly continue to be embedded with the SDF counterpart or otherwise occupy positions nearby.
Regardless, this is one of the exact scenarios that experts and observers had warned could happen after U.S. President Donald Trump at least tacitly approved Turkey's cross-border operation in a call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 6, 2019. There is also the risk that U.S. forces in Syria may find themselves stuck in between a host of other hostile parties, including forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and his allies Russia and terrorists, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria, who may try to take advantage of the increasingly chaotic situation. There have already been reports that the SDF is now refocusing its efforts away from fighting ISIS in order to respond to the Turkish incursion and that the U.S.-led campaign against the terrorists may have effectively come to a halt.
In the meantime, there is no indication that the U.S. military has any intention of attempting to intervene in the still very much developing conflict between Turkey and the SDF, despite calls for a no fly zone from America's erstwhile Syrian partners. Esper and Milley both said that they saw no sign that the Turkish government was looking to slow down their operation, either, despite calls from the United States and others for a ceasefire and a return to an agreed-upon security mechanism that had been in place less than a week ago.
Some U.S. lawmakers are now pushing for an American arms embargo and other sanctions against Turkey. A number of European nations have also been making similar diplomatic appeals, with Norway, another NATO member, going so far as to put its own arms embargo into place. Finland has done the same, which could impact ammunition supplies to the Turkish military.
It remains to be seen whether or not this incident in Kobane was an aberration and how it might further impact U.S. policy regarding the situation. Trump himself has made vague threats to respond harshly, including that he would "destroy and obliterate the [Turkish] Economy," if he believes Ankara is not proceeding in a way that he believes is appropriate.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 5:15pm EST—
Turkey now says that the artillery strikes were in response to attacks from what they calling a "YPG/PKK" position just over half a mile south of the U.S. outpost in question. U.S. forces did contact their Turkish counterparts and get them to cease fire. No American personnel sustained injuries in the incident.
There are unconfirmed reports that French special operations forces, who are also in Syria working with the SDF, may have been closer to the position in question and that they may have suffered casualties.
UPDATE: 5:50pm EST—
Newsweek's James LaPorta has now reported that Turkey's shelling was much closer to the U.S. outpost, with at least one round falling within 740 feet (225 meters) of the compound. American forces reportedly considered exercising their right to self-defense, but did not and ultimately withdrew from the area once the shelling stopped.
UPDATE: 8:10pm EST—
France has now confirmed that none of its personnel were wounded in any incidents in or around Kobane.
The Pentagon has also now issued its own official statement regarding the incident, which is as follows:
"U.S. troops in the vicinity of Kobani came under artillery fire from Turkish positions at approximately 9 p.m. local Oct. 11.
"The explosion occurred within a few hundred meters of a location outside the Security Mechanism zone and in an area known by the Turks to have U.S. forces present.
"All U.S. troops are accounted for with no injuries.
"U.S. Forces have not withdrawn from Kobani.
"The United States remains opposed to the Turkish military move into Syria and especially objects to Turkish operations outside the Security Mechanism zone and in areas where the Turks know U.S. forces are present.
"The U.S. demands that Turkey avoid actions that could result in immediate defensive action."
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