American special forces will be heading to northern Syria to help clear Islamic State-held towns, alongside Turkish forces, the Department of Defense announced on Friday. But a confrontation in a strategic border town highlights the myriad of problems that could be awaiting the Americans when they arrive.
The announcement of the expanded mission, which will see 40 special forces embedded within the Turkish military near the border, came on Friday, just hours after video surfaced from the rural town of al-Rai which, supposedly showing rebel groups chanting anti-American slogans as US troops leave town.
The troop commitment and the, yet unconfirmed, video both paint a picture of the complex relationships existing in the area, especially as the influence and strength of the Islamic State wanes in the region, leaving long-standing rivalries and mistrust.
Up until now, American forces had only been embedded with vetted rebel and Kurdish groups. The Department of Defense says this mission marks the first time they've embedded with Turkish units.
"Looking forward, there remain several areas in the border region that must be liberated from ISIL control to further limit their freedom of movement," Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, with the Marine Corps, said in a statement provided to VICE News. "To help accomplish these objectives, and in addition to continued US airstrikes against ISIL, pursuant to a Turkish request, US special operations forces have been approved to accompany Turkish and vetted Syrian opposition forces as they continue to clear territory from ISIL."
The statement characterizes the deployment as a "train, advises and assist" mission, but the mission will undoubtedly put American forces directly in the theatre of combat.
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American special forces in the region have, thus far, mostly been embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up predominantly of Kurdish fighters but with a mix of others.
Those units have, at different times, faced a three-front fight against IS, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and the Turkish military. The US commandos embedded in those units are so close to the fighting that airstrikes on the Kurdish forces have come dangerously close to hitting American forces, the Pentagon confirmed in August.
Specifics on the American deployment in the region remain sketchy. There are more than 4,000 American military personnel currently deployed to Iraq, with an additional 900 special forces in that country, while there are some 300 additional forces in Syria, including the 40 commandos announced on Friday.
Given the considerable special forces deployment in the region, and the secrecy surrounding the mission, there is no clear explanation as to why some 25 American soldiers were in al-Rai.
Video from multiple sources, posted to Twitter on Friday afternoon local time, purport to show the US troops rolling out of al-Rai, with multiple onlookers speaking about "Americans" in Arabic. The caravan of vehicles includes what appears to be a Turkish Sabra M60T tank. One photo shows a camouflage-sporting soldier with an American flag patch on his arm.
A translation by the Middle East Eye, an online news portal, reports that those in the video, which it refers to as members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, called the Americans "pigs," and yelled "down with America."
The early reports accompanying the video suggested that the 25 special forces, as well as a few advisors, had been embedded with the Turkish military. CNN's Turkish station reported on Friday that the US special forces "supported" a Turkish operation in al-Rai.
Both the Department of Defense and the US Central Command in the region told VICE News they were aware of the reports, but could not confirm.
Al-Rai has, since the outset of the Syrian civil war, switched hands repeatedly, and is considered a strategic foothold, sitting just miles north of al-Bab, an IS fortress near Aleppo. In the last two years, the Islamic State and free Syrian forces have traded control of the Turkish border town, but it was thought to be controlled by free Syrians as of late August, after a Turkish-backed offensive.
Turkey, along with the free Syrian forces, have worked to block the Kurds from northern Syria, in order to prevent separatist militants from fortifying the area, like they've managed to do in neighbouring Iraq.
Those long-standing rivalries underscore the difficulties presented to the Western coalition trying to oust IS while keeping the region from falling back to in-fighting.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling