UPDATE 1, March 5, 5pm ET: We’ve geo-located a second US military vehicle image.
UPDATE 2, March 5, 7:35pm ET: US Stryker armoured vehicles were seen around the village of Yalanli on March 5.
At Grasswire we’ve followed developments in northern Syria in detail for more than a year and a half. We were convinced that the Manbij/Al Bab area could be one of the most significant areas in the war long before the SDF operation to take the area from Islamic State.
We came late to the most recent pictures claiming to be of US military vehicles near Manbij on March 4, but they grabbed our interest. The US presence in northern Syria is known, but the location of forces and their purpose is closely guarded.
The pictures were shared by the @AfarinMamosta account on Twitter, one that we know well and have a high degree of trust in. The account posts Kurdish news and says it is based in Kurdistan.
The vehicles pictured are green, unusual for US vehicles in Syria because the standard desert camouflage is the tan colour of the humvees that accompanied the green vehicles. The green colour implies that these vehicles were deployed hastily.
@AfarinMamosta posted seven images:
— Afarin Mamosta (@AfarinMamosta) March 4, 2017
— Afarin Mamosta (@AfarinMamosta) March 4, 2017
The first image that caught our eye was the one below, which shows a US Stryker armoured vehicle about to cross a bridge. That bridge and the landscape beyond looked to us very much like the Qarah Qawzaq bridge near Manbij.
The silos in the background of other images also seemed to be something we could try to locate.
This bridge was partially destroyed before the SDF advance west of the Euphrates which eventually led to the capture of Manbij and a large area of territory around it. There is lots of documentary evidence of the repair of the bridge in June 2016, including in this tweet from Dr Partizan on Twitter. We know this account well, and know that what it posts is fairly reliable, although we recognise its pro-SDF and pro-Kurd slant.
— Dr Partizan (@Dr_Partizan) June 6, 2016
The black metal barrier on the edge of the bridge looks very similar to that in the picture of the US vehicle. The shape of the hill beyond the bridge to the right and its “stripe” of greenery looks very similar too.
The significant picture
Suleyman Shah, who died around 1236, was the grandfather of Osman I who founded of the Ottoman Empire.
In February 2015, the Turkish garrison and the relics from the tomb were removed in an overnight operation by Turkish forces with the agreement of the Kurdish forces which held the territory through which the Turkish forces passed. The remains were moved to a site in Syria just 180 metres from the Turkish border, and the old mausoleum was demolished.
The significance of the tomb meant it was very likely there would be plenty of imagery taken by visitors.
We started searching for images and video of the area around the tomb and bridge, looking for similar angles, checking landscape features, looking for the silos, hoping to find evidence tying the pics to specific locations.
A second pic from Afarin Mamosta on Twitter became much more important.
As we searched we found that Joseph Dempsey, a Research Associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, had beaten us to locating it.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) March 4, 2017
Joseph found an image of the tomb on the website of the pro-Erdoğan Turkish TV station A Haber. The image was used in a post about the tomb, the relocation of remains and the repair of the bridge and more.
The image shows land and vegetation in almost identical positions to the picture of the US vehicle. This is extremely strong evidence that the vehicles were photographed as they passed the tomb. We cannot be completely sure that the images were taken in March 2017, but it appears highly likely.
Within a few minutes, a post on the Syrian Civil War subreddit also confirmed the location of the vehicles. The post has since been deleted.
We located what appears to be the silos in the photograph below.
The Sarrin grain silos are to the west of the Qarah Qawzaq bridge, and are on the northern side of the M5 road, consistent with the image.
This tweet posted in 2015 by Syria-watcher Thomas van Linge gave us the clue.
— Thomas van Linge (@ThomasVLinge) July 27, 2015
The pic shows the Sarrin grain silos in July 2015. The centre of the silo complex was destroyed by Islamic State on July 26, 2015.
— shams shahin (@shamsashahin) July 26, 2015
The image in Thomas van Linge’s tweet comes from a video posted on July 27, 2015 the day the Battle of Sarrin finished and the day after the centre of the structure was demolished. The image in the tweet comes from approximately 02:03.
The video is branded with the Euphrates Volcano crest. Euphrates Volcano was a joint operations room of YPG and FSA units which fought in the area. It was a founder member of the SDF and was superseded by military councils within or linked to the SDF.
The YouTube channel and its associated Google+ account is in the name of Servan Derwish, who was a spokesperson and camera operator for Euphrates Volcano. Derwish then became a spokesperson for the SDF and is now spokesperson for Manbij Military Council.
Having established that the Sarrin silos are likely the location of that photograph, we started to wonder about the nearby US airbase. It’s approximately 3.6km (2.3 miles) from the grain silos.
It should be noted that the US military’s Central Command said on March 6, 2016 that it “was not taking control of any airfields in Syria”. This was despite a report by Al Jazeera on January 20, 2016 citing an SDF activist who said that the YPG had surrendered control of Rmeilan airfield to the US military. Iraq-based news website BasNews on July 25, 2016 reported that the US airbase at Sarrin was near completion.
All the Stryker images show relatively clean vehicles. The only other known US airbase in Syria with a runway is at Rmeilan in Hasakah province, near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, around 370km (230 miles) from the silos.
Is it reasonable to think that the vehicles could have driven that distance and arrived as clean as they appear?
From satellite imagery, we estimate the runway at the Sarrin airbase is approximately 4,000 feet (1.2km) long, although it could be longer.
The landing distance for a loaded C-17 is around 3,500 feet (1,100 m) and the shortest takeoff distance for an unloaded C-17 is 3,700 feet. We think the airbase at Sarrin likely falls within these parameters.
The C-17 is able to carry three Stryker vehicles. In the images we have found on Twitter, we’re able to identify at least two: one labelled R1 on the vehicle’s rear, the other R3. They are shown in convoy with several Humvees. We cannot say for sure that there were only two Stryker vehicles.
So, given all the above, it is reasonable to assume that a C-17 delivered two or three Strykers to the airbase at Sarrin and these then crossed the Euphrates to reinforce the US military presence in Manbij.
US Stryker armoured vehicles were photographed by AFP’s Delil Souleman around the village of Yalanli on March 5. Yalanli is about 25km west of Manbij.
We cannot be sure that they are the same vehicles. Yet.
We can say with a very high degree of certainty that a US military convoy consisting of Strykers and Humvees passed the Sarrin grain silos and crossed the Qarah Qawzaq bridge over the Euphrates from east to west in early March 2017.
We do not know which units these vehicles transported or what their final destination was.
The presence of US troops in Manbij is known, but not their numbers or which units they come from. The US says these troops are there in an advise-and-assist role and are not engaged in frontline fighting, although Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition against Islamic State said Russian aircraft had bombed US-backed Syrian Arab Coalition fighters 16km (10 miles) south-west of Manbij on February 28. The mistaken strike was within 5km of US forces.
On March 4, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, Col John L. Dorrian, confirmed that additional US troops had been deployed around Manbij.
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) March 4, 2017
— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) March 4, 2017
The frontline between SDF-linked Manbij Military Council and Turkey’s military and its allied Syrian rebel factions engaged in Operation Euphrates Shield has seen attacks from both sides. Attacks from the Turkey/rebels side on MMC positions have increased since they took control of Al Bab.
On March 2, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reiterated the long-standing government position that Turkish forces will attack what he called “PKK/PYD forces” in the Manbij area unless the group withdraws.
Manbij Military Council said on March 2 that it had reached an agreement with Russia to hand defence of some of the land it controls west of Manbij city to government forces. Russian Chief of Staff Sergei Rudskoy said on March 3 that Syrian and Russian forces would move into the Manbij countryside on that day. Pictures of a Russian humanitarian convoy in Manbij circulated on Twitter on March 4.
Liz Sly from the Washington Post posted this image of the bridge taken some time in the past.