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U.S. Special Operations Forces Arrive in Syria to Advise Turks in ISIS Fight - The New York Times

17 September 2016
U.S. Special Operations Forces Arrive in Syria to Advise Turks in ISIS Fight - The New York Times

U.S. Special Operations Forces Arrive in Syria to Advise Turks in ISIS Fight - The New York Times

WASHINGTON — American Special Operations forces have arrived in northern Syria to work alongside Turkish troops fighting the Islamic State, the Pentagon said on Friday, stressing that the approximately three dozen Americans would serve in an “advise and assist” capacity.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email that the American Special Operations forces “are accompanying Turkish and vetted Syrian opposition forces as they continue to clear territory” from the Islamic State near Jarabulus and al-Rai.

The decision to send the American forces into northern Syria with the Turkish military came last week, one American official said, shortly after a meeting between Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and President Obama during the G-20 summit meeting in China.

American officials described details of the deployment on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic and national security sensitivities of the mission.

Turkish news outlets had reported that Mr. Erdogan suggested that his country was ready to carry out a joint operation with the United States to fight the Islamic State in its de facto capital, Raqqa, in northern Syria.

American officials played down that discussion, and said on Friday that the United States was still trying to resolve how to assemble any ground force to take back Raqqa — especially given the fractious nature of the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds, a minority group whose population straddles the border.

The United States has had Special Operations forces working in an “advise and assist” capacity in Syria for more than a year. The latest deployment, along the northern Syrian border, was first reported Friday by The Wall Street Journal.

The warring sides in Syria are in the first week of a cease-fire that officials hope will pave the way for some kind of political settlement in the five-year civil war. The cease-fire, negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia, calls for an extraordinarily high level of cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Russian and American militaries; that sharing would theoretically begin after seven days of the cease-fire period that started on Monday.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the cooperation between American and Turkish forces during a meeting with Turkey’s military chief, Gen. Hulusi Akar, in Split, Croatia, according to a Defense Department statement on Friday.

The decision to work with the Turks in northern Syria comes after a contentious two months in Washington’s relationship with Ankara — a tension that was sparked in July with an attempted coup in Turkey.

Turkey made a formal request to the United States this week for the arrest of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in the United States, on charges of orchestrating the July 15 coup attempt. The government in Ankara blames Mr. Gulen’s religious movement for the failed coup and has been demanding that the United States turn him over ever since. Mr. Gulen has repeatedly denied involvement in the coup attempt.

The issue came up during Mr. Erdogan’s meeting with Mr. Obama in China, officials said.

Ankara and Washington are signatories to an extradition treaty in which the United States and Turkey agreed to surrender to each other individuals who have committed crimes punishable by at least a year in prison. But the treaty sets out what can be a lengthy legal process for that extradition, and Obama administration officials say they plan to let that process take its course.

Separately, the Pentagon said that forces with the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State killed the group’s minister of information, Wa’il Adil Hasan Salman al-Fayad, also known as Dr. Wa’il, in an airstrike on Sept. 7 near Raqqa.

A version of this article appears in print on September 17, 2016, on page A7 of the New York edition with the headline: Special Forces to Aid Turks Fighting ISIS in North Syria

New York Times