U.S. Military Reassesses Its Mission In Syria

Nov 12, 2019
Originally published on November 12, 2019 7:26 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's go now to Syria from which the United States is withdrawing some troops from part of Syria. The U.S. is also moving to protect part of Syria, the part with oil fields. Here's NPR's Jane Arraf.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Akher Wahad (ph) is another word like mashalt (ph) that every commando is going to learn no matter where we send them across Deir ez-Zor - understand?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: That's a member of U.S. Special Forces training a group of Syrian commandos at this remote base in Deir ez-Zor province. The commandos crouch on the sidewalk with rifles. They're dressed in camouflage uniforms, some with flowered scarves wrapped around their heads.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Anybody have any questions?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.

ARRAF: This is the first time since President Trump announced another realignment in policy that the U.S. military has taken journalists to Syria. But we weren't allowed to interview the special operators who have worked most closely with America's Syrian Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. Many were ordered out of Kurdish-controlled areas after Trump said he wanted to end the U.S. military presence in Syria. But he is sending in hundreds of other troops to guard oil installations. And the Pentagon says the mission is still fighting ISIS, even though the president has declared ISIS defeated. An Apache helicopter pilot who deployed here two weeks ago, Captain Joseph Giuliani (ph) says with all the different players in Syria, they knew it would be complicated.

JOSEPH GIULIANI: So we had the mindset way before we got here that things would be changing. So that gave us a little certainty that things would be uncertain.

ARRAF: Forty minutes away by helicopter, we land at another U.S. base in Hasakah province. Here, the military is moving in Bradley armored fighting vehicles and tanks to protect the oil fields. Lieutenant Jake Moore (ph) on his first deployment and in country for just a little over a week, tells us about their first mission the day before protecting a U.S. military convoy as it moved between bases.

JAKE MOORE: We got out to the city limits, and groups of people would start coming out. And they were all waving and smiling at us as we got closer to the city center. The impression I got from the general populace is that they supported us being here and were very happy to see us here.

ARRAF: A National Guard brigade combat team takes a Bradley for a spin in the sand for the TV cameras. I asked Major General Eric Hill, commander of Special Forces in Iraq and Syria, how drawing down Special Forces and bringing in armored vehicles will help fight ISIS when the group is now launching hit-and-run attacks.

ERIC HILL: Well, I would say our force mix currently has an array of capability. So we have multiple different capabilities to get at ISIS. But our primary way that we do that is through our partner. It's through intelligence. It's through working with the partner.

ARRAF: That partner is the Syrian Democratic Forces. On this afternoon, their spokesman, Mustafa Bali, and the U.S. military spokesman, Colonel Myles Caggins, are meeting for the first time. Bali welcomes him through an interpreter.

MUSTAFA BALI: (Through interpreter) It's been five years that we are working together and we are in the same fight together, actually.

MYLES CAGGINS: That's right.

ARRAF: At the joint press conference, they avoid talking about the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Kurdish-held territory and Turkey's subsequent attack on a U.S. ally. The Kurdish-led forces lost more than 10,000 fighters in the U.S.-backed battle against ISIS. And when I talked to Bali afterwards, he's much more candid.

BALI: (Through interpreter) The thing which makes me sad is in five years working with the U.S. Army, we became real friends fighting ISIS. But they are sad, too, because politicians gave them orders to leave.

ARRAF: Politics, he says, made us victims. Jane Arraf, NPR News, at a U.S. military base in northeast Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.