US concerned that current Turkish and rebel offensive in Afrin is diverting attention.
ISIS is gone from most of northeastern Syria, but its long-term impact could take up to a decade to reverse.
The US is leading a growing multi-year effort to stabilize part of Syria through local partner forces. Maj.-Gen. James Jarrard, Commander of Special Operations for Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve described “the destruction, the barbaric way they [ISIS] treated the population and tortured and detained and used slaves.”
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post he said on Saturday that the tensions in Afrin, where Turkey and Syrian rebels are fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is also a concern as the US seeks to help stabilize part of Syria through its partner forces.
The US-led coalition in Syria is still fighting ISIS. “We are almost complete with the liberation of the physical caliphate,” Jarrard said.
He praised the Syrian Democratic Forces as “great partners who have done a phenomenal job liberating terrain.” The problem is that these partner forces, made up of Kurds and Arabs from various units, including the YPG, have a lot of work to do. In the lower Euphrates valley near Iraq “once you liberate terrain it’s not over.
ISIS and al-Qaida are experts at blending into the population and remain in a cellular structure and commit activities that delegitimize governance.”
The US wants to train local security forces in the “near term” that will help get the local government up and running and allow it to do its job.
There is also a lot of reconstruction to be done and clearing thousands of IEDs. Jarrard said that in Raqqa, Manbij, and Tabqa some experts have estimated it could take up to 10 years to clear all the mines left behind.
“That is the biggest inhibitor to all the other stabilization efforts because of the dangers of working in areas not cleared of IEDs,” he explained. It’s a bit of a catch-22 because the US wants to help the local people have security to get their agriculture developed and start earning a living while the coalition wants the US State Department donors to set down foundations under a program called START Forward.
He said that you can’t have security if you can’t clear IEDs and you can’t clear IEDs until the financial support is flowing to equip people to do it. Getting the financial support requires security and stabilization.
The coalition and its partners also face a second major problem in northern Syria near Manbij where tensions have caused local Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to clash with the YPG, which is part of the SDF.
Turkey accuses the YPG of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which it labels a terrorist organization.
In late January, Turkey launched a major military operation against the YPG in Afrin in northern Syria. The US does not operate in Afrin.
However, on February 4 Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said that if the “PKK/YPG terrorist group” did not leave Manbij, which is 130 km. to the east of Afrin, then Turkey would move again Manbij as well, according to a report at TRT.
This potentially would mean a clash between Turkish and US forces or at least severe clashes between their partners. US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Friday that the US was balancing competing interests and Turkey has indicated it may slow down its offensive.
The US-led coalition is outspoken on the Afrin issue. Maj.- Gen. Felix Gedney, Deputy Commander of the task force, tweeted on February 3 that “military operations in Afrin, Syria is placing [the] Coalitions #DefeatDaesh mission at risk,” using the Arabic term for ISIS.
“The current situation in Manbij is fairly stable,” Jarrard told the Post. “There is sporadic interaction between some opposition [rebel] forces and Kurdish forces along that interim border in the Manbij enclave in the Euphrates Shield area.”
Euphrates Shield was the 2016-2017 operation by Turkey and its rebel allies to intervene near Manbij and clear a corridor along the Turkish border in Syria.
There are procedures in place to “de-escalate” the “sporadic” clashes around Manbij quickly, the general said. This involves liaison between the coalition and Turkey. “We work to de-escalate that as quickly as we can. So the security situation has not changed much in Manbij.”
Jarrard specified that the situation in Afrin continues to be a concern and that the US Defense and State Departments are working on that issue.
“It was a stable part of northeast [sic] Syria and we want to return it to that level of stability as quickly as possible to concentrate on [fighting] the physical caliphate of ISIS and that’s of concern to everyone in the region.”
Turkey, Russia, the Syrian regime, the Syrian rebels, YPG, SDF and the 74 nation coalition have all been fighting ISIS for the last several years.
He said that it’s a complex scenario now in northern Syria but that one thing all the actors agree on is they want to eliminate ISIS. “We need to work with all partners and at all levels to restore stability and focus on ISIS.”