For some time, the U.S. military has been offering conflicting statements on its presence in Syria. In October, for example, a general said the U.S. had 4,000 troops in the war-torn Middle Eastern country, or about eight times the official number of roughly 500, before correcting himself and giving that official figure.
The Washington Post noted at the time that “it’s long been an open secret that the Pentagon has far more personnel involved in operations against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, than its publicly disclosed figures,” before reporting just over a month later that the Pentagon had revised its official tally to about 2,000, or roughly four times the previously acknowledged number (though still only about half of what Army Maj. Gen. James B. Jarrard suggested in October).
It’s also unclear how long troops will remain in Syria. Earlier this year, “Pentagon and State Department officials indicated that the Trump administration envisions U.S. soldiers remaining on the ground in Syria and Iraq indefinitely, even once Islamic State militants have been defeated, and does not believe it requires additional permission from Congress to do so,” according to New York Magazine.
Yet President Donald Trump reportedly said this week that the U.S. would be “coming out of Syria very soon,” according to ABC News, “surprising the Pentagon and State Department.”
So perhaps it is not so surprising that public affairs personnel for Operation Inherent Resolve would post photos online stating that troops in Manbij, Syria, were conducting “presence patrols,” and then quickly change their story afterwards when questioned by the Military Times. Nevertheless the press team’s actions offer an interesting perspective.
“I have pulled those photos and cutlines for review and correction. I will release them for reposting at a future time to be determined,” Col. Thomas Veale, public affairs director for OIR, reportedly told the news outlet.
“Additionally, Military Times was told by officials that the forces were only ‘conducting security within their area of operations’ and the term ‘presence patrol’ does not accurately describe what’s happening in the photos,” according to the publication.
According to a 1998 paper published by the Army War College, in peacekeeping operations, where troops are “generally restrained from using military force” except in self defense, “activities like meetings with belligerent leaders and presence patrolling are the major ways influence and order are obtained.”
A focus on America attempting to wield its own influence or prop up its favored actors in Syria, rather than allowing local “self-determination,” as suggested by terms like “presence patrol,” may be part of the reason why, according to Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, “Inherent Resolve is obscuring the purpose of these patrols by using ambiguous language,” as the Times paraphrases her. Another is the implication of the term for the deteriorating situation with neighboring Turkey.
“They’re trying to use terminology to manage the Turkish reaction,” Cafarella reportedly told the Times. “The intended effect — regardless of the framing — is to deter Turkey from attacking.”
The report from the Times’ Kyle Rempfer continues, providing some background on the situation in the northern Syrian city of Manbij:
Coalition forces have been in the vicinity of Manbij since around August 2016, when they supported locals in the liberation of the area from the Islamic State.
“We have maintained a relationship with the Manbij Military Council (MMC), which was created to defend Manbij from Daesh,” an OIR official said, using the Arabic term for ISIS.
In a statement last week, Inherent Resolve officials called the MMC a “mixed Arab and Kurdish council.”
Now, though, statements from Inherent Resolve describe the MMC as mostly Arab.
“The MMC is a primarily Arab force made up of Manbij locals,” the new statement reads.
It also notes that “the predominantly Arab council has maintained security and stability.”
The difference in ethnic makeup may seem innocuous to most Americans, but it is a linchpin in the dispute Turkey is lobbying the United States over.
Turkey began a military offensive over its border into the Syrian city of Afrin in order to eliminate Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists — and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened that the operation will soon extend to Manbij.
Turkey considers the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, to be linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terror group by both the United States and Turkey. However, the YPG has been an key part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS.
Now, it appears that U.S. officials are attempting to ”de-emphasize the level of YPG involvement in military and governing structures in Manbij in order to portray the situation as predominantly Arab and to portray the Turks as the aggressor in any possible endeavor,” Cafarrella said.
Still, the relationship between the YPG and U.S. forces is actually unclear, she explained. In fact, it seems the United States has very little leverage over the YPG, as evidenced by their failure to prevent Kurdish units from heading to fight in Afrin.
In the end, Cafarrella said that the “United States is correct in that most of the Manbij Military Council in terms of volume is Arab, but they are subordinate to the YPG chain of command, or at a minimum are subordinate to YPG leadership.”
She added that there have been recent protests in the Manbij area by Arabs against the MMC, “for abuses against the Arab population.”
“Because that whole structure is still dominated by the YPG, its ideology and its goals,” she said.
I have previously written about the ambiguity, contradictions and clumsiness of U.S. policy in Syria, especially when it comes to support for the YPG, as exemplified by such developments as revelations that YPG troops were using equipment issued in the past to American special operators, though the U.S. nonetheless denied supplying it. Yet these latest developments provide what is perhaps a unique level of insight into the thinking of those whose job it is to put a positive spin on what often seems to be an incredibly short-term and reactive policy planning process for military operations in the region.