PARIS — The U.S. has now begun training Turkish troops, marking the final step before the two countries begin conducting joint patrols likely later this month around the strategic northern Syrian city of Manbij, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.
Mattis said that initial instruction for Turkey's military trainers started, and will soon be followed by U.S. training of the broader Turkish force that will conduct the patrols. The forces are being trained in Turkey.
The White House signaled a fundamental shift in the military mission for troops in Syria that would focus on Iran rather than ISIS.
The training had been delayed a bit while equipment was brought in and the two countries worked out the details of how military tactics and operations would be conducted.
Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey's presidential spokesman, said last week that the patrols would "begin very soon." Mattis would not commit to a timeline, but acknowledged progress in the training steps needed for the patrols to start.
The Manbij patrols are part of a “road map” that Ankara and Washington agreed on in June to defuse tensions amid Turkish demands for the withdrawal of a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that freed the town of Manbij from the Islamic State group in 2016.
"We have every reason to think the joint patrols will be coming on time when the training syllabus is complete," Mattis told reporters traveling with him en route to Paris. "We just got to an agreement last week."
No Turkish troops or allied Syrian fighters will deploy inside the strategic Syrian town of Manbij following a Turkish-U.S. deal that is expected to see the local U.S.-backed Kurdish militia pull out of the area, the head of the local military council said Thursday.
Mattis said the Turkish military has "been very helpful, very professional on setting the rules of engagement and the training up, and we're on the ground there now."
The U.S. and the Turks have been conducting independent patrols along the border there. Creating joint patrols is seen as a way to tamp down potential violence between the various groups in the area.
Manbij has been a major sticking point in the strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Ankara considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terror group that is linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Kalin said continued U.S. support for the Kurdish forces remains "a serious concern."
Turkey’s president in remarks published Friday accused the United States of failing to abide by a deal for a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia to withdraw from a town it had liberated from Islamic State militants in northern Syria.
In July, the Manbij Military Council, which administers the town, said the YPG units once stationed there had completed their withdrawal. Turkey's Foreign Ministry called reports of the alleged withdrawal "exaggerated" and said they didn't "reflect the truth."
Mattis is expected to meet with senior French leaders on Tuesday then head to Brussels for a meeting later this week of allied defense ministers.