The U.S. has expanded its military presence on the Syria-Iraq border, deploying military troops on the strategic top of Mount Sinjar in a bid to fight Iran backed militias, it has been claimed by Daily Express. Halal Khalo, Deputy Mayor of Sinjar, said:
“15 military vehicles of US troops arrived on top of Mount Singhal and stationed themselves near Mira peak on the mountain.”
The Sinjar Governor later confirmed the U.S. was preparing to establish a military base on the mountain, which constitutes a strategic area as its position dominates the Syrian border. He told local media the U.S. would use the new base to fight off Iran-backed Shia militias, preventing them “from controlling the mountain or blocking the area so it becomes an Iranian corridor to Syria, which could eventually lead to a regional war”. He also claimed the presence of US troops on Mount Sinjar “brings hope for stability” to the thousands of displaced members of the Kurdish Ezidi religious minority, which have not been allowed to return home. However, Iraqi General Najim al-Jubour has rejected such claims, Sputnik adds. The General explained:
“U.S. advisers are in Mosul, Qayyarah, and other parts of the Nineveh Province. But they are deployed there on an everyday basis. They had told us we should take precautionary measures at the border.”
Al-Jubouri claimed the information about a new US base came from unreliable sources and that Iraqi military forces were mobilised to Mount Sinjar to shield the Syria-Iraq border from ISIS. The General added:
“The involvement of the US military in supporting Iraqi forces in securing the border does not go beyond its scope, which is to provide military advice.”
Meanwhile, The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Iraqi Armed Forces launched the second phase of their east Syria offensive against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) this past weekend. The Coalition press service circulated a message citing representatives of the SDF, in which it claimed the Islamic State still maintains a significant presence on the Syrian border with Iraq.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces began the second phase of their offensive in eastern Syria today. The second phase of the offensive is aimed at clearing the remaining Islamic State areas in coordination with our Iraqi partners. The Iraqi security forces also stepped up their presence along the border in order to prevent the escape of ISIS members from Syria to Iraq,” the Coalition statement says.
With U.S. air support, the Syrian Democratic Forces have launched a big attack on Baghouz Al-Fouqani, which is located just north of the Iraqi border.
The issue of U.S. military presence is a contentious one in Iraq. In March, the Iraqi parliament demanded that the government set a clear timeline for the withdrawal of U..S forces. Several days later, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad and confirmed that NATO forces are staying “because Iraq wants us to be here.” According to The Financial Times, Kurdish issue remains key to U.S. role in Syria.
In January former secretary of state Rex Tillerson redefined U.S. policy in Syria and stated that the U.S. would remain until Isis was finally defeated. At the same time, the intention was to diminish Iranian influence. Three days later, with Turkey’s attack on and occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria, the situation changed. Already in August 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield and Russia’s connivance Turkey had occupied the Manbij pocket, an Isis-controlled area between the Euphrates and Afrin — apart from the town of Manbij, which had been taken by the US-backed Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia.
The original agreement was that the YPG would withdraw from Manbij, but this is now a bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey. US policy in Syria is entirely conditional on support from the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which the Kurdish YPG militia plays a major role. However, at the end of March US President Donald Trump effectively undermined this policy by stating the US would withdraw from Syria “like very soon”.
Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, is due to meet Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington today, where Manbij will be the main item on the agenda, Hurriyet Daily News adds. In the event, it will be the Kurdish issue that will determine whether and for how long the U.S. will remain in Syria.
The core of the talks will be focused on what the two parties call “the Manbij plan” that would stipulate the withdrawal of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara recognizes as a terrorist organization because of its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from this strategic province in northwestern Syria. Turkey has long demanded the YPG’s removal from Manbij, where a sizeable U.S. force has also been deployed since early 2016. The former U.S. administration had promised this but it has never been fulfilled by the past and current U.S. governments. Çavuşoğlu and Pompeo are expected to reveal a plan for the joint control and protection of Manbij after the withdrawal of the YPG troops from the region within a certain timeline.