Top US commander for the Middle East visited Syria

Top US commander for the Middle East visited Syria

Top US commander for the Middle East visited Syria

AFP photo

The top U.S. military commander for the Middle East made a surprise visit to northern Syria on May 21 to witness efforts to build up local forces in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, officials said.

General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), met U.S. military advisors working with Syrian Arab fighters, a Centcom spokesman said.

He also met leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the spokesman said, without providing further details.

During the secret trip, which lasted several hours, the Centcom commander visited a handful of locations, CNN reported as it accompanied Votel, the highest-ranking US military official to travel to Syria since its civil conflict began in 2011.

U.S. special operations forces are helping train fighters in Syria to combat ISIL as Washington leads a coalition of countries in an air war against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

The ISIL group has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq to create a self-styled “caliphate.” Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has received pledges of allegiance from jihadist groups around the world.

The United States has roughly 200 advisers on the ground in Syria, but no combat units. Votel’s visit comes as the first of 250 more US special operations forces are beginning to arrive.

Kurds play a dominant role in the U.S.-backed SDF, providing the core of the forces that have pushed back ISIL in the country’s northeast.

The SDF has a total of about 25,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Arab fighters.

Washington is pushing to bring more Arab forces into the group.

The Syrian war erupted in early 2011 after Assad’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and has since claimed more than 270,000 lives.

Votel’s visit comes after international talks on ending the Syrian conflict broke up with no clear breakthrough earlier this week as new faction-fighting erupted and the death toll continued to mount.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed on the need for tighter security in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone after protesters stormed the area, the White House said on Saturday. 

At least four anti-government protesters were killed and 90 injured on May 20 in clashes with security forces in the Green Zone, which is home to government offices and embassies, hospital sources said on May 21. 

Obama spoke by phone with al-Abadi and a White House statement said they noted the need for talks so that “the Iraqi people can address this aspirations through their democratic institutions.” 

Obama also commended al-Abadi for the steps his government has taken in finalizing an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and said it is important for the international community to support Iraq’s economic recovery amid its fight against the ISIL.