The Central Intelligence Agency’s Director Mike Pompeo has at his disposal in Syria and Iraq a range of special operations forces, operating with heavy artillery, armor, warplane and helicopter units. In addition to Iraq, they are scattered through small air bases in northern and eastern Syria for performing missions on four fronts. Those missions are revealed here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly.
Afrin and Manbij, North Syria: Here, they extend arms and other support to the Kurdish YPG fighters in Afrin and Manbij, who are fighting to fend off cross-border Turkish army incursions.
President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman claimed on Saturday Jan. 27, that US National Security Adviser HR McMaster had confirmed that the US would no longer provide the YPG with weapons, after Ankara urged Washington it risked confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria. At the same time, Erdogan insisted that Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq – notwithstanding the danger of confrontation with US forces allied to the Kurds.
So what was going on behind this exchange of threats?
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that McMaster technically kept his word to Ankara, but also kept faith with the Kurds. Arms consignments were now being routed through the Kurdish militia’s PYD party headquarters before reaching the Afrin and Manbij battlefronts. The Turks understand what is going on, and so the risk of a military clash between the two NATO armies remains high. American forces in the region remain on high alert, in case it erupts in Manbij, where a US contingent remains in place. According to our sources, Pompeo has warned the Turkish MIT intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, that a Turkish attack on Manbij would be deemed by Washington tantamount to a Turkish attack on the United States army.
One of the bizarre aspects of this affair is that the US continues to maintain a war room in Turkey for extending support to a number of Syrian rebel groups in Syria. The Turks call the facility “MOM”. Ankara and Moscow have both urged the Americans to shut this facility down, but it is still functioning.
Deir ez-Zour, east Syria: Here, the US is engaged in a concentrated effort to arm and supply logistics to its allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdish YPG for two missions: the fight against Islamic State in areas east of the Euphrates River and a solid front to contain the Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces operating in the region. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources reveal that, in this sector, the US contingent is not content with delivering training and supplies; it also provides artillery and air support, labeled “preventive fire,” since it helps the local forces keep Assad’s army and its allies pinned down in their positions and behind their lines. They are thus held back from continuing their easterly advance to the Iraqi border. The slightest movement outside those lines draws sustained American fire.
The Iraqi-Syrian border in Anbar. In this remote quarter of Iraq, the Americans have no Kurdish fighters or other proxies to depend on for ground operations – only scattered Arab nomadic tribes. Pompeo’s main purpose here is to choke off the movements of Shiite militias, including Iraqi armed groups, from Iraq into Syria. The burden of this mission is carried by US special operations and air force units. When Shiite military movements are detected or reported by local informers, they come under direct US fire on the routes they are traveling on both sides of the border.
Al-Tanf Front, SE Syria: This is the most active of all four fronts in which the CIA maintains special operations units. Hardly a day goes by without a challenge by Russian special forces, Syrian troops, Hizballah, or local groups recruited and trained by either side. A combined Russian-Syrian-Hizballah push has long sought to drive the Americans out of Al-Tanf, because it is the key to free and safe passage from southeastern Syria into western Iraq and northern Jordan. However, the US garrison doesn’t budge even when it comes under live artillery fire and air strikes.
Moscow’s determination to gain possession of Al-Tanf was attested to by the communique the Russian MoD released on Jan. 26: “Two off-road vehicles carrying European-made electronic weaponry were destroyed by Syrian forces near the US base at Al-Tanf. Five militants ([i.e. terrorists) died and ISIS propaganda material was found at the scene.”
The communique went on to allege: “The Russian military believes US forces have effectively turned their military base near the town of Al-Tanf into a terrorist training camp. Last December, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov said the militants trained there are “essentially ISIS.” They “change their colors, take different names – the New Syrian Army and others.” The Russian communique continued: “The militants are currently planning to flee Al Tanf for terrorist attacks in Damascus, Homs and Deir ez-Zour, to engage and retract Syrian forces fighting terrorists in Idlib.”
DEBKA Weekly: This “information” is obviously fictitious, but it is a measure of Russia’s frustration over its failure to get its hands on the high-value strategic Al-Tanf.