Images have appeared in circulation showing a patrol of U.S. M1126 Strykers flying deliberately prominent U.S. flags in the Kurdish-held Manbij region of Northern Syria. After arriving in the town of Manbij, U.S. forces are rumoured to have contracted a local tailoring shop to procure large flags. The forces then proceeded to conduct a high-profile patrol around the city and its outlying villages that appears to have had little tactical value. For the traditional Syria strategy of insertions of low-profile special operations forces, this show of force marks a significant change in tactics. Does this indicate a new Syria strategy, or is this a hasty operation that has been driven by developments on the ground?
The Manbij gap has for some time been at risk of being the ignition point for a conflict between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (dominated by Kurdish fighters aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as the PKK), and Turkish-backed forces deployed around al Bab. Turkey’s forces in the area previously announced that their intentions were to push east toward the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa following the capture of al Bab, however the main highway that linked the two cities is now blocked by a force of Syrian regime troops leaving Turkey’s options to approach the city limited and precarious. The remaining routes from al Bab to Raqqa are held by Kurdish forces. Beyond this, Turkey has for some time been uneasy with the large swathes of SDF-held territory along its southern border, and is keen to reduce both Kurdish holdings and influence lying so close to its own domestic Kurdish populations.
Turkey had demanded that Kurdish forces withdraw from Manbij and other towns west of the Euphrates River when it initially launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August of last year. Kurdish fighters refused to withdraw, stating that they captured those towns from IS through a hard won victory that cost Kurdish lives and effort, and would not yield them to a foreign power hostile to their existence. While clashes between Turkish and Kurdish elements have occurred sporadically in the region since then, a full-scale armed confrontation has not yet broken out. Washington has attempted to marshal both sides into cooperating in the fight against IS in an effort to avoid two key allies clashing, however the complex nature of the war in Syria has made this a difficult task.
The configurations and identification markings of the vehicles photographed in Manbij appear to match those of the 75th Ranger Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, based out of Fort Benning, Georgia. The U.S. Army Ranger’s Strykers can be deployed via C-17 airlift to relatively austere airfields, and U.S. forces in Northern Syria are known to use a number of remote airstrips and abandoned regime air bases to support their SDF allies. Reports also circulated that a U.S. convoy (including unspecified armoured vehicles) was seen crossing the Iraqi-Kurdish border into Syria, however given the lack of slat armour on the Strykers it is unlikely that they were re-tasked from an existing deployment in Iraq. This suggests a probable hasty deployment from the U.S.
Until now, the U.S. mission in Syria has been limited to training, advising, and equipping local forces, and occasionally covert special forces raids. As such, these recent photographs (combined with reports that textile shops in Manbij were contracted to produce large U.S. flags in recent weeks) suggest that the U.S. is deliberately adopting a more visible posture in the conflict.
There are a number of potential reasons for the highly visible U.S. presence in the Manbij gap. It could be that the U.S. has positioned forces in Manbij so that Kurdish rebels could decrease their presence there, making it possible for Turkish troops to traverse the city on their way to Raqqa without a confrontation between the two U.S. allies. This would essentially allow both the Turkish and Kurdish forces to concentrate on fighting IS without fighting one another, and could go some way to repairing U.S.- Turkish relations as Washington is seen to be working to accommodate Turkey’s grand strategy in Syria.
Another reason for the U.S. deployment could be a blocking move to create a “peacekeeping” barrier between the two sides, while preventing Turkish passage through Manbij entirely. This would be significantly more risky for the U.S., as it would create tension with Turkey, and potentially push them into closer cooperation with the Russian-Syrian alliance should they seek other routes into Raqqa. Such a move would not be a welcome outcome for the U.S. which, despite the election of President Trump, still officially maintains an anti-Assad policy in Syria. Alternatively, Turkey could seek to open another front in Syria elsewhere along the Turkish-Kurdish border, leading to direct conflict between the two U.S. allies.
A third potential reason for the deployment could be the initial (but hasty) staging of an increased U.S. strength in the region, with the intent to directly participate on the assault on Raqqa following gains being made against IS. As the Islamic State’s self-declared “capital”, involvement in this operation could be seen as an important aspect of President Trump’s promise to defeat IS. Around 400 Marines from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines (11th Marine Expeditionary Unit) also recently deployed to Manbij with a battery of M777 Howitzers, which Pentagon officials stated would be used in support of U.S.-backed forces in the upcoming Raqqa offensive. The timing of this deployment also coincides with the end of the deployment of the USS Makin Island amphibious ready group (ARG), and the arrival of the relief-in-place from the USS Bataan ARG (which carries elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit) in the Western Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf respectively. While this is a routine relief-in-place for the standing ARG patrol in the region, any escalation of the situation in Syria will now have the benefit of two full ARG deployments in place. The missing slat armour on the Strykers does support this argument by hinting at a hasty deployment.
Overall, the Strykers’ highly visible deployment likely signals a significantly bolder U.S. policy in the region, and in the coming weeks a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria is likely to be announced. This comes as Trump is considering a proposed plan for defeating IS delivered to the White House by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis in February. While the decline of the territorial Islamic State now appears to be a sure thing, President Trump will have the benefit of being able to claim that his administration’s troops played a role.
Lewis Sage-Passant is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.
Photo credit: Qalaat Al Mudiq/twitter