The U.S. military has halted support for Turkish ground troops pushing deeper into Islamic State-held territory in Syria, highlighting the mounting tension between NATO allies over how to defeat the extremist group.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria said on Wednesday that no airstrikes or American special operations advisers are assisting the Turkish military's operation targeting ISIS fighters in al Bab. Located 20 miles south of the Turkey-Syria border, the town serves as an important transfer point for fighters and supplies bound for Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital some 125 miles to the east.
"We've not supported the advance to al Bab thus far," Air Force Col. John Dorrian said. "This is a decision they've made to go into al Bab, but it's not one that the coalition has provided strikes in support of."
Despite that, Dorrian said the Turkish advance appears to be going well. "They've not yet moved into al Bab and taken the city, but they are very, very close, encountering some pretty tough resistance," he noted. "They do expect to be able to power through that."
Still, it's an important strategic shift, coming after months of U.S. support for Turkish troops fighting ISIS in the border area. Both sides have disagreed about the battle plan for defeating the Islamic State group, however. U.S. commanders want to focus on Raqqa. Turkey is prioritizing other parts of ISIS-held northern Syria.
The U.S. and Turkey are at odds, too, over American support for the Syrian Kurdish militants also fighting ISIS. Syrian Kurds have proven to be a reliable U.S. ally on the ground, but Turkey believes they have ties to terrorist groups that target the Turkish government.
American commanders are eager to find a ground-level infantry force capable of fighting ISIS in and around Raqqa. The U.S. would like Turkey’s powerful military to support American-backed operations there, but the Turkish government has refused to coordinate in any way with the Syrian Kurds.
There are about 300 U.S. special operations troops on the ground in Syria.
Strategic disagreements must be resolved by high-level talks between Turkey and the United States, Dorrian said. "There needs to be some continued, ongoing diplomatic discussions about the manner in which we continue to fight Daesh in northern Syria," he said, referring to an alternative name for the Islamic State group. Dorrian added the lack of direct U.S. military support reflects concern that the Turkish military is not adhering to the broader U.S. battle plan. "We believe that all of the operations in Syria against Daesh should be coordinated very closely between all the parties that are involved."
Turkey decided to move on al Bab "independently," he added, "and what we'd like to do is to continue to work with them to develop a plan where everyone remains focused on Daesh."
The U.S. wants to avoid ground-level fighting between Turkey and the American-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which would drain momentum from the fight against ISIS. "We don't want to have any chance of partners that both have an interest in defeating Daesh converging in a way that would be unhelpful," Dorrian said. He declined to speculate about how or when the U.S. might revive military support for Turkish operations against ISIS. "This is a diplomatic issue that is the subject of ongoing discussion. I need to let the diplomatic side work this out. It's not my place to opine about it," he said.
Syrian Kurdish forces are a primary component of the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which launched an operation to isolate Raqqa on Nov. 6. So far those forces have made limited progress in the towns outside of Raqqa.
It’s unclear whether President-elect Donald Trump might shift U.S. policy regarding the fight against the Islamic State and how the U.S. military coordinates with Turkey.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.