CENTCOM commander in secret visit to Syria
An Associated Press reporter accompanied US CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel to a secret location in Syria where the general visited some of the 200 US military advisors who are training Syrian Kurds and Arabs to fight Islamic State.
Votel is the highest ranking American to visit Syria.
Votel's motives for visiting American forces were to highlight the work they are doing in training anti-ISIS fighters. There are no American combat troops in Syria, but US special forces are thought to be assisting Kurdish fighters on the battlefield.
Votel said he brought reporters with him because, "We don't have anything to hide. I don't want people guessing about what we're doing here. The American people should have the right to see what we're doing here."
Votel flew into northern Syria from Iraq, where he had conferred on Friday with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders. In Syria he met with U.S. military advisers working with Syrian Arab fighters and consulted with leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of Kurdish and Arab fighters supported by the U.S.
A small group of reporters accompanied Votel under ground rules that, for security reasons, prohibited disclosing his visit until after he had left Syria. After landing at a remote camp where American military advisers are training Syrian Arab troops in basic soldiering skills, Votel split off from the reporters who flew in with him; he then visited several other undisclosed locations in Syria before returning to the camp.
Syria is a raging war zone, torn by multiple conflicts that have created severe human suffering across much of the country. But on Saturday the U.S. advisers camp that Votel visited was quiet. Situated about 50 miles from the nearest fighting, it was remarkably quiet. The sharpest sound was a month-old puppy's yapping as he ran between visitors' legs. A light breeze nudged several bright-yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces attached to small bushes and atop a post buried in an earthen berm beside a shooting range.
Aides said Votel's flight into Syria was the first made in daylight by U.S. forces, who have about 200 advisers on the ground. Military ground rules for the trip prohibited reporting the kind of aircraft Votel used, the exact location of where he landed and the names and images of the U.S. military advisers, who said they have been operating from the camp since January.
An Associated Press reporter and journalists from two other news organizations were the first Western media to visit the secretive operation.
Is it just a coincidence that Russia has offered to carry out joint strikes with the US? Votel disappeared for several hours from the training camp and could have met with Russian military leaders in Syria:
The White House isn't ruling out an offer from Russia to begin jointly planning and carrying out airstrikes against al-Nusra Front, as well as other militants groups in Syria that are not observing a ceasefire.
But a White House spokesman said Friday that if Russia really wants to help maintain a ceasefire, it can lean on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop his violations of the accord.
"We believe that if Russia wants to do something to take on al Nusra and ISIL, the first thing on their to-do list is to make sure that the Assad regime is abiding by the cessation of hostilities," deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters during his daily briefing.
"Clearly the turmoil and chaos there is what provides a fertile breeding ground for ISIL to conduct its operations," he added when asked if he would rule out cooperating with Russia. "Our goal is for Russia to urge [Assad] to abide by the cessation of hostilities but we're not going to comment on further steps at this point."
The problem is whose ground troops would the joint strikes be supporting? I can't see the US taking part in operations led by the Syrian army and Hezb'allah. And the Kurds would be extremely wary of taking help from the Russians, considering that Russian planes have been bombing them mercilessly.
Putin may not be serious about a plan for joint air strikes, and could be trying to deflect criticism of cease fire violations by the Syrian government. But it doesn't appear that the forces being trained by the US are anywhere near ready to take on Islamic State. Until they are, the phony cease fire will allow Assad to continue making gains against his primary enemies; the rebels fighting to throw him out.