Sunday 18 March 2018

US Special Forces seen fighting Isil with Kurds inside Syria

A fighter from the YPG in the northern Syrian province of Raqa Photo: DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / Getty Images
A fighter from the YPG in the northern Syrian province of Raqa Photo: DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / Getty Images

Jonathan Gray

US Special Forces, wearing the badge of their Kurdish allies, have been seen fighting Isil near the frontline in the Syrian city of Raqqa for the first time.

The commandos were pictured by AFP agency firing an anti-tank missile, or TOW, at a car rigged with explosives in the village of Fatisah, Raqqa province.

It is thought they are wearing the insignia of their partner force, known as the YPG, out of solidarity but also to avoid being targeted by Isil snipers.

"Special operations forces, when they operate in certain areas, do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security," Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman, said.

The US has always maintained its troops are simply advisers assisting its Arab and Kurdish allies away from the frontline. Mr Cook yesterday denied any mission creep, saying the "advise-and-assist role has not changed".

The US now has at least 300 Special Forces advisers in Syria's Kurdish-majority northeast where they have been advising the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - a coalition of Arab, Kurdish YPG and Turkmen forces. Washington sees the group as the most effective fighting force to take on Isil and has supported the newly formed alliance with weapons and training.

However, Ankara regards the YPG as a terror group, accusing it of carrying out attacks inside Turkey and yesterday said it was "unacceptable" that they should be seen sporting its insignia.

The issue has caused tensions between the two Nato allies for months.

The offensive against the Islamist group's de facto capital is the most significant since it declared a self-styled caliphate across Syria and Iraq.

As opposition forces battled Isil in Raqqa, the Islamist group made important gains just a few miles west in the towns of Azaz and al-Salamah close to the Turkish border.

Aid groups warned the jihadist onslaught trapped more than 100,000 internally displaced Syrians living in informal camps near the border, closed by Ankara several months ago.

Isil has tried to advance on the towns for months, but yesterday the jihadist group said it launched a "surprise attack" and seized a series of villages near Azaz.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) announced it was pulling out most of its staff from their hospital near the border, saying the frontline was now just 3km away.

"We are terribly concerned about the fate of our hospital and our patients, and about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active frontlines," said Pablo Marco, MSF operations manager for the Middle East.

"For some months, the front lines have been around 7km away from the hospital, now it is only 3km from al-Salamah town. There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer."

Meanwhile yesterday the UN refugee agency reported a "spike" in the number of Iraqis trying to flee into Syria to escape the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is controlled by Isil.

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: "Just picture this: we have refugees fleeing to Syria". The country is now in its sixth year of civil war.

The agency says that nearly 4,300 people arrived at al-Hol camp in Syria's northeastern Hasakah governorate in May.

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