WASHINGTON — US Special Operations forces have arrived in northern Syria to work alongside Turkish troops fighting the Islamic State, the Pentagon said Friday, stressing that the approximately three dozen Americans would serve in an “advise and assist” capacity.
Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail that the US Special Operations forces “are accompanying Turkish and vetted Syrian opposition forces as they continue to clear territory” from the Islamic State near Jarabulus and al-Rai.
The decision to send the US forces into northern Syria with the Turkish military came last week, one US official said, shortly after a meeting between Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and President Obama during the G-20 summit meeting in China.
American officials described details of the deployment on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic and national security sensitivities of the mission.
Turkish news outlets had reported that Erdogan suggested that his country was ready to carry out a joint operation with the United States to fight the Islamic State in its de facto capital, Raqqa, in northern Syria.
American officials played down that discussion, and said Friday said the United States was still trying to resolve how to assemble any ground force to take back Raqqa — especially given the fractious nature of the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds, a minority group whose population straddles the border.
The United States has had Special Operations forces working in an “advise and assist” capacity in Syria for more than a year. The latest deployment, along the northern Syrian border, was first reported Friday by The Wall Street Journal.
The warring sides in Syria are in the first week of a cease-fire that officials hope will pave the way for some kind of political settlement in the five-year civil war. The cease-fire, negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, calls for an extraordinarily high level of cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Russian and US militaries; that sharing would theoretically begin after seven days of the cease-fire that started Monday.
The decision to work with the Turks in northern Syria comes after a contentious two months in Washington’s relationship with Ankara, a tension that was sparked in July with an attempted coup in Turkey.
Turkey made a formal request to the United States this week for the arrest of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States, on charges of orchestrating the coup attempt. The government in Ankara blames Gulen’s religious movement for the failed coup and has been demanding that the United States turn him over ever since. Gulen has repeatedly denied involvement in the coup attempt.