Strange bedfellows: US special forces in north Aleppo test Turkish-backed rebels

AMMAN: Free Syrian Army rebels backed by Turkey and the United States moved closer to a key Islamic State-held city in northern Aleppo province on Monday, two days after a rebel faction suspended its participation in the battles “until the American soldiers leave.”

The FSA offensive is part of the third phase of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation, launched last month to not only drive the Islamic State (IS) from its southern border with Syria but also to limit Kurdish territorial ambitions in the same area. Over the past few weeks, FSA forces backed by Ankara and the US-led international coalition have successfully driven IS from a 90km strip of territory along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

The anti-IS alliance captured several villages southwest of the north Aleppo border town of a-Rai over the weekend, where battles against IS continued on Monday.

Syrian rebels and their foreign backers are looking southwards to the IS-held north Aleppo city of al-Bab, to which Islamic State fighters fleeing losses nearby in Manbij and Jarablus, have withdrawn. Located 23km south of a-Rai, heavily fortified al-Bab is the Islamic State’s last major holding in Aleppo province.

 Turkish-backed FSA fighters inside a north Aleppo village captured from IS on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Liwa al-Moutasem.

Captain Abdelsalam Abdelrazaq, the military spokesman of Nour e-Din a-Zinki, one of the main FSA factions participating in the battles, told Syria Direct on Sunday that capturing al-Bab is “the fundamental goal” of the Euphrates Shield offensive. 

Abdelrazaq and other rebels told Syria Direct earlier this month that they intended to advance south towards al-Bab, with or without Turkish support. On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that they have it.

"Jarablus and al-Rai have been cleansed, now we are moving towards al-Bab... We will go there and stop (Islamic State) from being a threat to us" he announced at a press conference at Ataturk Airport. 

During the same conference, Erdogan stated that the 900 square kilometers already captured by Turkish-backed rebels since Euphrates Shield began last month may increase to 5,000 square kilometers “as part of a safe zone.”

‘We do not accept Americans fighting with us’

US special forces entered rebel-held a-Rai, just south of the Turkish border in Syria’s Aleppo province, last Friday accompanied by FSA fighters and Turkish troops, all of whom were forced to flee shortly afterwards when tensions flared with other FSA fighters already in the town.

Videos widely shared on social media on Friday appear to show a number of US special forces hastily withdrawing from a-Rai shortly after they entered the opposition-held town as FSA rebels called them “dogs” and “pigs.”

“We do not accept Americans fighting with us,” the person filming one of the videos says as several vehicles holding US military personnel and allied rebels pass by on their way out of the town.

“Some of the factions, like Ahrar a-Sharqiyah, refused the entry of the American forces in the battle and have withdrawn,” Adnan al-Hussein, an independent journalist currently embedded with the rebels near a-Rai told Syria Direct on Saturday.

 A statement by Ahrar a-Sharqiyah condemning the presence of US special forces in a-Rai on Friday. Photo courtesy of Ahrar a-Sharqiyah.

 “We were not aware of the entry of US troops into northern Syria and were surprised by their presence in al-Rai,” Ahrar a-Sharqiyah, an FSA faction originally from the eastern Deir e-Zor province, wrote in a statement posted to Facebook following Friday’s events.

Ahrar a-Sharqiyah also suspended all military activities in Euphrates Shield “until the American soldiers leave this area.”

A second FSA brigade in a-Rai, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, also withdrew from the battles near a-Rai on Friday, but said they did so to shore up rebel forces battling the regime on fronts in Aleppo and Hama provinces.

While both Liwa Suqour al-Jabal and Ahrar a-Sharqiya fought in recent north Aleppo battles, neither is among the most prominent factions participating, which include Failaq a-Sham and Nour e-Din a-Zinki. It is not immediately clear what impact, if any, their exit will have on future battles.

“We refuse to fight alongside the American troops on Syrian territory because of their support for the terrorist, separatist PKK gangs,” Ahrar a-Sharqiyah said in a video statement posted online on Friday, referring to US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria.

The SDF are led by the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has historical ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist group that has clashed with the Turkish government for decades.

Syrian rebel factions deeply distrust the Kurdish-led forces, who they accuse of forced expulsions and property destruction, and whose territorial ambitions in northern Syria they read as an assault on a future unified Syria.

American military support—including weapons, airstrikes and training—for the SDF in their successful campaigns against the Islamic State, most recently in the eastern Aleppo city of Manbij, rankles the same Turkish-backed FSA groups that the US now seeks to back in northern Aleppo.

The US special forces currently with Turkish troops and FSA fighters in recently captured northern Aleppo territories are there “at the request of the government of Turkey,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency in an email on Friday.

The forces “will provide the same train, advise and assist support they have been providing to other local partners in Syria,” said Davis.

At least for now, most major rebel factions participating in the north Aleppo battles appear willing to accept US support.

Nour e-Din a-Zinki spokesman Abdelrazaq downplayed the significance of the confrontation, noting that Ahrar a-Sharqiyah suspended their participation in the battles but did not fully withdraw.

The US forces who entered a-Rai did so “under the leadership of Turkish forces,” said Abdelrazaq, “with the aim of defining the targets of the planes to increase precision and avoid bombing civilians, which was what happened in the Manbij countryside.”

For Washington, the fight against IS appears to preclude reservations about the convictions or ideologies of the groups now carrying out that goal.

“We recognize that the opposition forces fighting [IS] in Syria are not a monolith, and some of them have more extreme views than others,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a press briefing on Friday. “Even inside certain groups you’re not always going to find a coherent view about the fight that they’re engaged in.”

“It’s not really about the opposition to Assad, it’s about the fight against [IS],” added Kirby.

“So we’re going to continue to support those forces in Syria that are able and willing to press the fight against [IS].”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.