The Associated Press reports: On a secret trip to Syria, the new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Saturday he felt a moral obligation to enter a war zone to check on his troops and make his own assessment of progress in organizing local Arab and Kurd fighters for what has been a slow campaign to push the Islamic State out of Syria.
“I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel said in an interview as dusk fell on the remote outpost where he had arrived 11 hours earlier. “So it’s imperative for me to come and see what they’re dealing with — to share the risk they are dealing with.”
Votel, who has headed U.S. Central Command for just seven weeks, became the highest-ranking U.S. military officer known to have entered Syria since the U.S. began its campaign to counter the Islamic State in 2014. The circumstance was exceptional because the U.S. has no combat units in Syria, no diplomatic relations with Syria and for much of the past two years has enveloped much of its Syria military mission in secrecy.
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.”
Syrian Arab commanders who were made available for interviews at the U.S. camp Saturday said their forces are gaining battlefield momentum but also need a lot more help. They were quick to say the U.S.-led coalition should pitch in more.
Qarhaman Hasan, the deputy commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said he has given the Americans a list of his most pressing needs. Atop his list: armored vehicles, heavy weapons like machine guns, as well as rocket launchers and mortars.
“We’re creating an army,” he said through an interpreter, and have had to rely on smuggling to get weapons.
“You can’t run an army on smuggling,” he said.
Tribal leaders said in interviews that they also want to see the U.S. do more, both militarily and with humanitarian aid.
“America has the capabilities,” said Sheik Abu Khalid as he puffed on a cigarette under the shade of pomegranate and pine trees.
Talal Selo, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, was especially strong in his criticism of the U.S. for providing too little assistance and for giving the SDF “very useless” support. He said that if this continued the Syrians opposing the Islamic State will have to fight for another 50 years. [Continue reading…]