ARLINGTON, Va. — Russian and Syrian government aircraft bombed Syrians fighting to oust ISIS from towns northeast of Aleppo as U.S. forces were on the ground nearby advising coalition fighters, the Defense Department said.
The Syrian Arab Coalition fights under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an anti-ISIS, anti-Qaeda, anti-Assad coalition currently leading the major Wrath of Euphrates offensive to oust ISIS from their capital, Raqqa. The SDF consists of more than 50,000 fighters, female and male commanders, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and other minority ethnic groups.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters via video from Baghdad today that “all the forces that are acting in Syria have converged literally within hand-grenade range of one another” in the area around al-Bab.
“Last week, we saw Turk and Turk proxy forces fighters converge with Syrian regime and Syrian proxy fighters, ISIS being in the mix there. We have YPG, Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, and Syrian Arab Coalition fighters also right bumping up against each other there,” he said. “And then here in the last 48 hours, we’ve seen Syrian regime forces advance through ISIS-held villages to essentially rifle-range or hand-grenade range with Syrian Arab Coalition fighters holding the area around Manbij.”
Manbij was liberated from ISIS by the SDF in August, which has been followed by fighting between Kurdish and Turkish forces.
Townsend said that Tuesday “we had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages” south and east of al-Bab “that I believe they thought were held by ISIS.”
“Yet, they were actually — on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab Coalition forces. They had seen ISIS move out of the area in advance of the regime and the Turks’ advance. The ISIS fighters withdrew, and the Syrian Arab Coalition fighters advanced into those villages,” the general explained.
“There were U.S. forces in the area,” he added. “Not that close; they were four or five kilometers away because remember, we’re not fighting, we’re not at the front, we’re advising at command echelons a little bit farther back. So they were back, they observed these strikes.”
“It became apparent that the strikes were falling on some of the Syrian Arab Coalition positions and some quick calls were made to our deconfliction channels and the Russians acknowledged and stopped — stopped bombing there.”
Townsend confirmed that the Syrian Arab Coalition forces suffered casualties in the bombings.
Russia’s defense ministry replied in a statement that “not a single air strike on the regions specified by the U.S. side was conducted by Russian or Syrian air forces.”
Townsend said the United States is “still in decision-making stages” as to whether or not to join the SDF assault on Raqqa “and what equipment they might need.”
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“The Iraqis have all the modern types of body armor, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, fighter jets, helicopters, and they’re having a hard time taking — it’s a challenging fight taking Mosul. So I think if I, you know, transpose that to Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces are an irregular light infantry force mounted mostly in pickup trucks. So, they have very few heavy weapons,” he said.
“So, if I compare these two forces and I envision the Syrian Democratic Forces assaulting Raqqa, a not unsubstantial city, I think that they’ll probably need additional combat power. But those decisions have yet to be taken.”
Townsend said the Defense Department is “confident that the SDF forces that are isolating Raqqa will continue their recent successfully clearance operations and set the stage for the liberation of the city.”
Since launching the Wrath of Euphrates operation against ISIS at the beginning of November, the U.S.-backed SDF has liberated more than 3,700 square miles of territory in the drive toward Raqqa.
“We’ve continued discussing how Turkey and their partner forces might contribute to the liberation of the city. The liberation of Raqqa will bring an end to the enemy’s mythology that they were ever more than a brutal, murderous terrorist group. And then we will continue working with our partners to deal them a lasting defeat,” Townsend said, adding that he’s “encouraged by the bravery and commitment of our partner forces who have fought hard and made many sacrifices in their efforts to liberate their land.”