Middle East News

Coalition spokesperson says US and Russian forces ‘not hanging out together’ in Manbij

Col John Dorrian, spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, updated media on military activity and plans in Syria

Air Force Col John Dorrian, spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, said on March 15 that US and Russian forces can see each other near Manbij, Syria, but they’re not “hanging out together.”

He was speaking by teleconference during the regular Pentagon press briefing on the US-led coalition’s activity in Syria and Iraq.

Referring to the US Army Rangers around Manbij, Dorrian said “they have not encountered any enemy activity or any type of engagements on their patrols.”

Dorrian repeatedly reiterated that Coalition forces had not seen any actions that would threaten Turkey.

Asked if he expected Kurds to be involved in the liberation of Raqqa, Dorrian said he expected Kurdish fighters will be involved at some level. “The Syrian Democratic Forces are a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian organisation and that is one of the reasons we are working with them,” he added. Dorrian said the coalition didn’t have any plans to incorporate the Rojava Peshmerga into operations in northern Syria.

A summary of the Syria element of the briefing is below. The full transcript is available here and the video is here.

Dorrian said that what he called ‘coalition partners on the ground’ with the support of coalition airstrikes have captured more than 7,400 square kilometres of territory around Raqqa.

He acknowledged the recent deployment of US Marines to assist on the Raqqa front, and, referring to social media, said that the small coalition force which started its actions around Manbij on August 13, 2016 has continued to “train, advise, assist and accompany Manbij Military Council forces as they provide security to the people of Manbij and restore local governance and public works to the city.”

“Coalition forces being present in the city improves transparency and facilitates communications among all parties in the area, to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation …

“Coalition forces have not observed any ISIS activity in the area or any actions that would threaten our Nato ally, Turkey.”

Video: US Army Rangers patrolling near Manbij

Bob Burns of the Associated Press asked about deployments in Raqqa and Manbij. Dorrian said that he would not give “a play-by-play” account of what the coalition is doing around Raqqa and Manbij.

“There are other actors who are pursuing their own agendas and their own operations and their own objectives and sometimes those objectives are going to differ with ours. Some of those present danger to our forces because it’s not just our partners and ISIS in this area, there are a number of other actors. We are not going to be able to brief [coalition forces] movements with a lot of fidelity.”

Referring to the US Army Rangers around Manbij, Dorrian said “they have not encountered any enemy activity or any type of engagements on their patrols.”

Tom Bowman, NPR, asked if it was expected that Kurdish fighters would enter Raqqa and if there would be Turkish involvement in the Raqqa campaign.

“With regard to the Kurds and whether they will be involved in liberating Raqqa, we do expect that they will be involved at some level.

“What I would say is that we continue working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition. Right about 75% of that force that is now isolating Raqqa is Syrian Arab. And this is a reflection that is demographically fairly consistent with what you would find in that area.

“That is a fundamental principle of the campaign.

“We are going to try and generate with our partner force, a force that is fairly consistent with what you find in Raqqa and that includes Syrian Arabs, that includes Kurds, that includes Assyrians, Christians, all others.

“The Syrian Democratic Forces are a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian organisation and that is one of the reasons we are working with them.”

Regarding Turkey, Dorrian said: “We have made clear for many, many weeks, indeed months, that we are open to a Turkish role in the continued operations to defeat ISIS in northern Syria. We haven’t come to an agreement about what that role will be or if there will be one.”

Kasem İleri, Anadolu Agency asked if the coalition had any role in the setup of meetings to set up civilian governance in Manbij.

Dorrian bluntly said: “We don’t have any role in the meetings.”

İleri followed up by asking if there were plans to integrate the Rojava Peshmerga, an armed group based in Iraq linked to the KDP, into the SDF efforts or other efforts against ISIS.

“We don’t have any plans to incorporate them at this time. We are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition and we are open to working with others if everyone will get on the same page and work to defeat ISIS. At a minimum we look to deconflict our operations with some of the actors.”

Rojava Peshmerga open fire at a Yazidi demonstration near Sinjar, Iraq

Ryan Brown, CNN asked if coalition forces in Manbij had “eyes on” with some of the Russian forces in the area, to which Dorrian simply replied: “Yes.”

Michael Gordon, from the New York Times asked if the YPG, the Kurdish militia that comprises the majority of the SDF, would be one element of the “seize force” for Raqqa.

“With regard to whether the YPG will be a part of the force, I think I’d like to leave it at we would expect Kurds to be involved.

“There are Kurds in the city. There have been Kurds that lived in Raqqa for, you know, a very long time.

“We expect the demographic makeup of the force that liberates the city will likely reflect the residents of the city, either the present ones or the historic presence within the city. So, we do expect there to be Kurds involved.”

Video: Russian forces in Arima, near Manbij

Tara Copp from Stars and Stripes asked about the proximity of US and Russian forces and, other than the de-confliction channel, were the two forces communicating in any other ways.

“We continue to use the deconfliction channel as our method of de-conflicting our operations, but certainly, they’re operating in a – in a city there and both our forces and there’s are visible.  And so they do – they can observe each other’s movement.

“They can see each other.  They’re not talking to each other and they’re not hanging out together.”

Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News, asked how concerned Dorrian was that something might happen between American and Russian forces.

“Certainly, it’s a concern. That is the reason that we have this de-confliction channel. So, as these forward lines of troops converge, and all these forces are operating closely together, the amount of coordination on that de-confliction channel continues to increase.”

Carlos Munoz, Washington Times asked if Dorrian thought IS leaders were fleeing to Deir ez-Zor.

“Next, we’re working very closely with our partnered force to further isolate Raqqa. There is still plenty of ISIS fighters and still plenty of ISIS leaders in Raqqa, and in the days ahead, that city will be much more difficult to escape.

“In these other areas, like Dawr az Zawr, that may be where we go next.”

Carla Babb, Voice of America asked about the day-to-day deconfliction between Russian and American forces.

“Yeah, as far as their proximity to the city – or excuse me, their – the proximity of our forces and the Russians, this is something that’s worked out through the coalition – through the deconfliction call. They tell us where they’re gonna be and we tell where we’re going to be and our forces do what they can to just stay away from each other.”

Patty Culhane, Al Jazeera English asked if there was any fighting at all around Manbij, and who Dorrian was referring to when he said the coalition had seen no presence of anyone who would upset Turkey.

“I’m talking about anybody. As far as fighting, we haven’t seen any, none of any kind from anybody.”

Asked how many IS fighters were in Raqqa, Dorrian said: “We think ballpark 3,000 to 4,000.”


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