WASHINGTON — The U.S. military's "reassurance and deterrence" mission in the Syrian city of Manbij is achieving its goal of preventing key American allies from battling one another, the Pentagon said Monday, but what's already a tense situation could become more complicated with the arrival of Russian troops and continued advances by Turkish-backed rebels.
Fewer than 100 elite Army Rangers are in Manbij to keep the peace between Syrian Kurdish forces and those loyal to Turkey, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. Russian troops are there providing security for humanitarian convoys that have entered the war-torn city, a development he called unsurprising in light of last week's high-level talks between the senior-most military commanders from Russia, Turkey and the U.S.
The Americans and Russians have had no close interaction on the ground, Davis said. Moscow, he added, has "kept us abreast of their operations" in Manbij, but the two militaries do not coordinate in Syria. Rather, the Pentagon prefers the term "deconflict."
The dynamic in Syria is deeply complex. U.S. troops there are focused on training and assisting local forces fighting the Islamic State. Their presence has swelled to around 1,000 in recent weeks with the addition of a Marine Corps artillery unit focused on the ISIS capital of Raqqa and the Army Rangers sent to Manbij. The Russians are backing Syrian President Bashar al Assad, whose military continues to battle rebel groups seeking to oust him from power.
Meanwhile, Turkey's president has called for the liberation of Manbij from the Kurds. Ankara considers the Kurds to be terrorists linked to a militant group responsible for carrying out deadly attacks across the border.
Video posted to social media from Manbij shows the Americans' armored vehicles — a mix of Strykers, humvees and mine-resistant tactical trucks — sitting idle or traveling in convoys. "They tend to find a place to park, and look out and watch," Davis said of the Rangers' mission. "They are, for the most part, static, but they do move."
The Americans moved in during early March amid signs of violence between Syrian Kurdish militias, who hold the city proper, and Turkey's Syrian proxies, who've made several recent land grabs nearby.
"Why we're there, and why we care, is we want to make sure the parties on the ground aren't shooting at each other," Davis said.
In that regard, the mission has been "relatively successful in keeping all forces there focused on the common enemy of ISIS," he said. "We have not seen a large amount of sparring or skirmishing."
The Rangers' vehicles display brightly colored American flags meant to make their presence abundantly obvious and, it is hoped, ward off direct attacks should hostilities erupt again. Davis declined to discuss what the U.S. military's response would entail if the soldiers come under fire, saying only that they maintain the right to defend themselves.
For now, the mission appears to be open-ended. Asked whether the Russians' presence in Manbij means the small American force there can pull out, Davis said there are no immediate plans for that occur.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre