Top US commander makes secret visit to Syria
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Top US commander makes secret visit to Syria

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US military’s Central Command, spends 11 hours in war-torn country overseeing anti-IS efforts

US Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to reporters Saturday, May 21, 2016 during a secret trip to Syria. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
US Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to reporters Saturday, May 21, 2016 during a secret trip to Syria. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

NORTHERN SYRIA (AP) — On a secret trip to Syria, the new commander of US forces in the Middle East said Saturday he felt a moral obligation to enter a war zone to check on his troops and make his own assessment of progress in organizing local Arab and Kurd fighters for what has been a slow campaign to push the Islamic State out of Syria.

“I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel said in an interview as dusk fell on the remote outpost where he had arrived 11 hours earlier. “So it’s imperative for me to come and see what they’re dealing with — to share the risk they are dealing with.”

Votel, who has headed US Central Command for just seven weeks, became the highest-ranking US military officer known to have entered Syria since the US began its campaign to counter the Islamic State in 2014. The circumstance was exceptional because the US has no combat units in Syria, no diplomatic relations with Syria and for much of the past two years has enveloped much of its Syria military mission in secrecy.

Votel said he brought reporters with him because, “We don’t have anything to hide. I don’t want people guessing about what we’re doing here. The American people should have the right to see what we’re doing here.”

Votel flew into northern Syria from Iraq, where he had conferred on Friday with US and Iraqi military commanders. In Syria he met with US military advisers working with Syrian Arab fighters and consulted with leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of Kurdish and Arab fighters supported by the US.

A small group of reporters accompanied Votel under ground rules that, for security reasons, prohibited disclosing his visit until after he had left Syria. After landing at a remote camp where American military advisers are training Syrian Arab troops in basic soldiering skills, Votel split off from the reporters who flew in with him; he then visited several other undisclosed locations in Syria before returning to the camp.

Syria is a raging war zone, torn by multiple conflicts that have created severe human suffering across much of the country. But on Saturday the US advisers’ camp that Votel visited was quiet. Situated about 50 miles from the nearest fighting, it was remarkably quiet. The sharpest sound was a month-old puppy’s yapping as he ran between visitors’ legs. A light breeze nudged several bright-yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces attached to small bushes and atop a post buried in an earthen berm beside a shooting range.

Aides said Votel’s flight into Syria was the first made in daylight by US forces, who have about 200 advisers on the ground. Military ground rules for the trip prohibited reporting the kind of aircraft Votel used, the exact location where he landed and the names and images of the US military advisers, who said they have been operating from the camp since January.

Syrian Arab trainees practice firing their small arms at an undisclosed training range in northern Syria on Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Syrian Arab trainees practice firing their small arms at an undisclosed training range in northern Syria on Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

An Associated Press reporter and journalists from two other news organizations were the first Western media to visit the secretive operation.

The last known high-level US official to visit Syria was Brett McGurk, Obama’s envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State. He spent two days in Syria in late January, including a tour of Kobani, the small town near the Turkish border where Kurdish fighters backed by US airstrikes had expelled an entrenched group of Islamic State fighters a year earlier.

In the interview, Votel said his visit had hardened his belief that the US is taking the right approach to developing local forces to fight IS, an acronym for the Islamic State.

“I left with increased confidence in their capabilities and our ability to support them,” he said. “I think that model is working and working well.”

The US has struggled to find an effective ground force to take on IS in Syria, where President Barack Obama has ruled out a US ground combat role. This presents a different problem than in Iraq, where the US at least has a government to partner with.

The problem in Syria is complicated by the fractured nature of the opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The US is trying to develop credible Arab fighters to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, while Syrian Kurds have retaken territory from IS in other parts of northern Syria.

The US is supporting what it calls the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is predominantly comprised of Syrian Kurds, numbering at least 25,000 fighters, with a smaller element of Syrian Arabs, numbering perhaps 5,000 to 6,000. The US is trying to increase the Arab numbers.

Syrian Arab commanders who were made available for interviews at the US camp Saturday said their forces are gaining battlefield momentum but also need a lot more help. They were quick to say the US-led coalition should pitch in more.

Qarhaman Hasan, the deputy commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said he has given the Americans a list of his most pressing needs. Atop his list: armored vehicles, heavy weapons like machine guns, as well as rocket launchers and mortars.

“We’re creating an army,” he said through an interpreter, and have had to rely on smuggling to get weapons.

“You can’t run an army on smuggling,” he said.

Syrian Arab sheikh Abu Khalid speaks to reporters traveling with US Army Gen. Joseph Votel during a secret visit to northern Syria, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Syrian Arab sheikh Abu Khalid speaks to reporters traveling with US Army Gen. Joseph Votel during a secret visit to northern Syria, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

Tribal leaders said in interviews that they also want to see the US do more, both militarily and with humanitarian aid.

“America has the capabilities,” said Sheik Abu Khalid as he puffed on a cigarette under the shade of pomegranate and pine trees.

Talal Selo, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, was especially strong in his criticism of the US for providing too little assistance and for giving the SDF “very useless” support. He said that if this continued the Syrians opposing the Islamic State will have to fight for another 50 years.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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