WASHINGTON – U.S. forces have stopped joint military patrols in northern Syria to counter Islamic State extremists, as Turkish threats of a ground invasion stymie those missions with Kurdish forces. Other more limited security patrols by U.S. and Kurdish troops, particularly around prisons, will begin again on Saturday, officials said.
U.S. Central Command on Friday said American troops have paused all of the joint operations with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces against IS in Syria. The Pentagon had said Thursday they were ongoing but reduced.
“The SDF continues to conduct patrols and maintain security at the al-Hol displaced persons camp and the detention facilities, prisons," said Army Col. Joe Buccino, the Central Command spokesman. "ISIS remains a threat to regional security and stability. We remain committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS and look forward to the resumption of operations against ISIS in the future.”
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters Friday that, as in the past, when there are Turkish operations in northern Syria, it has had an impact on the counter-ISIS operations as SDF forces concentrate on defending themselves in northern Syria. The U.S. said the SDF's decision to pause its missions against the Islamic State group triggered the U.S. decision to do so as well
A Kurdish military official said the other partnered patrols will begin Saturday in the border area. The U.S. said those patrols are not to counter the Islamic State militants.
The Kurdish official, who was not authorized to provide an official statement and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a state of calm prevailed along the border area after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar on Wednesday that Washington strongly opposes Turkey’s launch of a military operation in northern Syria.
Turkey has launched a barrage of airstrikes on suspected militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq in recent days, in retaliation for a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blames on the Kurdish groups. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also threatened a ground incursion, without specifying when it would be launched.
No U.S. forces or personnel have been hit by any of the strikes. But on Nov. 26, the U.S. military said two rockets targeted U.S.-led coalition forces at bases in the northeastern Syrian town of Shaddadeh. There were no injuries or damage to the base. There are roughly 900 U.S. troops in Syria, including in the north and farther south and east.
Earlier this week, Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, told reporters that counter-IS operations had been “temporarily paused” because of the recent Turkish airstrikes, and that gains made in the fight against the extremist group may be “threatened.”
But Ryder said the missions had been continuing, although they were more limited because of the SDF's request.
Austin spoke by phone with Turkish Minister of National Defense Akar on Wednesday, relaying the department’s strong opposition to any potential ground invasion in northern Syria, said Ryder. He declined to detail Akar's response to the U.S. concerns.
"The focus here is, from the United States standpoint, on ensuring that terrorist organizations like ISIS cannot reconstitute," Ryder told reporters Thursday. He said there has been progress on that since the group emerged in 2014 — which is when the extremists took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. “We don’t want to see that progress be wasted.”
Hogir Al Abdo in Qamishli, Syria, and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.