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Pentagon: U.S. troops play new role in Syria

March 6, 2017 (Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Mark Burrell/Army)
Editor's note: This story was updated March 7 to reflect high-level talks between military leaders from the U.S., Russia and Turkey. It was originally published March 6 at 7 p.m. EST.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has sent a team of troops to a small city in Syria to prevent the various forces present there from fighting one another. 

The Pentagon calls its effort in Manbij "reassure and deter." It's focused on keeping peace between Syrian Kurdish militias and Turkish military units, both of whom are fighting the Islamic State group but remain deeply distrustful of one another.

"It's a visible reminder, for anybody who's looking to start a fight, that the only fight that should be going on right now is with ISIS," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to “liberate” the city from Kurdish fighters and give it back to local Arabs, according to  reports. Meanwhile, Russian military elements, in support of troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, also are present on the city's outskirts. The top U.S. general, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford, was scheduled to meet on Tuesday with his Russian and Turkish counterparts in Antalya, Turkey.

“This is obviously a really complicated situation,” Davis said.

Davis declined to detail how many Americans are involved in the operation, saying only that it's fewer than dozens. They include some conventional forces working in support of a special operations task force that's been in the area for many months. 

The U.S. has authorized a force of 500 troops, predominantly Special Forces, to operate in Syria. It's unclear if this deployment breaches that threshold.

Manbij Military Council female instructor
A Manbij Military Council female instructor trains a local female MMC student during marksmanship training Feb. 21, 2017, at Sanaa Training Center in Northwest Syria. This is the first cycle of women to graduate and join the MMC. The MMC is a multi-ethnic force that includes Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and others. The course is administered by Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve trainers.
Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Mark Burrell/Army

Manbij is controlled by a coalition of Arab and Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey considers the Kurds, a group known as the YPG, to be allied with extremists responsible for terror attacks on Turkish soil. However, the YPG has been a valuable ally to the U.S. in its fight against ISIS, and the issue has created tension between Ankara and Washington.

Operation Euphrates Shield, launched by Turkey in August, has the dual mandate of defeating ISIS and the YPG, according to  Al Monitor. This represents a challenge for Washington as it seeks to protect one ally while not provoking another. 

The new U.S. mission in Manbij falls outside the U.S. military's train, advise and assist role, possibly foreshadowing the potential for mission creep even as ISIS loses power and territory in Syria. The Pentagon recently sent the White House its plan, ordered by President Trump shortly after taking office, for accelerating the group's defeat.

It appears this deployment, however, is more of a near-term fix and not necessarily tied to broader strategy.  

Sending U.S. troops into Manbij is an attempt to make Turkey dial back, said Jennifer Cafarella, an expert on the Syrian conflict at the Institute for the Institute for the Study of War. But the move highlights lingering questions about the Pentagon's long-term objectives there.

"The U.S.,"  she said, "still needs a strategy to reach a three-way deal with Erdogan and the YPG that sets mutually agreeable terms for a de-escalation in northern Syria. What that deal would require is unclear, because it hasn't been explored.”  

Shawn Snow is a Military Times staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief. On Twitter:  @SnowSox184
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