Top US Commander Threatens Russia, Syria Over Air Flights

August 22nd, 2016 - by admin

Jason Ditz / & Barbara Starr / CNN – 2016-08-22 00:07:20

US Commander Threatens Russia, Syria Over NE Flights

(August 21, 2016) — “We’ve informed the Russians where we’re at … (they) tell us they’ve informed the Syrians, and I’d just say that we will defend ourselves if we feel threatened,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told CNN in a telephone interview Saturday from his Baghdad headquarters.

Syrian Warplanes Continue Overflights Around Hasakeh
Jason Ditz /

(August 21, 2016) — In a telephone interview from Baghdad, new Iraq-Syria War Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend tried to echo the boundless optimism of every other US commander when put in charge of one of the nation’s various open-ended wars, vowing to see all of ISIS dead, and virtually ousted from both countries within a year.

The real story of his comments, however, was less the war he’s fighting now than the wars he’s threatening to fight along the way, as Lt. Gen. Townsend pointedly threatened both Russia and Syria over recent flights and airstrikes around the northeastern city of Hasakeh.

Townsend said he’d “informed” the Russians that US warplanes are prepared to defend US troops on the ground if they feel threatened in future strikes in and around Hasakeh. US troops are known to be embedded with Kurdish forces in the Hasakeh Province, but their exact locations aren’t known.

Even so, when fighting broke out in the city between Syrian and Kurdish forces, and Syrian warplanes struck the Kurds, US officials complained they’d had to scramble troops out of the area. They also made a point of sending their own warplanes to “confront” the Syrian ones.

Syrian warplanes are still flying over the area, despite US threats, while Russia is trying to get the military and the Kurds to stop fighting one another. Russia has been hacking the Kurds in some offensives, and appears to see this fighting as an unwelcome distraction from their focus on ISIS and the Nusra Front.

US officials, on the other hand, seem to see this as a great opportunity to transition from the war against ISIS, which despite all their rhetoric isn’t accomplishing much, and into a war against Syria’s government, which they see as a more straightforward, and potentially more winnable, battle.

US intelligence officials have been arguing that point since last year, and State Department officials have also been pushing the idea of shifting the war to one of regime change, on the idea that the pro-US rebels are never going to get anywhere unless the US props them up as a government first.

That said, attacking Syrian warplanes over Syria is almost certain to quickly bring the Russians into the war as well, which is why it has in practice been unthinkable to do so. Despite that obvious problem looming just over the horizon, however, US officials are still eagerly rushing forward on a confrontation.

Top US Commander Warns Russia, Syria
Barbara Starr / CNN Pentagon Correspondent

(August 21, 2016) — In the most direct public warning to Moscow and Damascus to date, the new US commander of American troops in Iraq and Syria is vowing to defend US special operations forces in northern Syria if regime warplanes and artillery again attack in areas where troops are located.

“We’ve informed the Russians where we’re at … (they) tell us they’ve informed the Syrians, and I’d just say that we will defend ourselves if we feel threatened,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told CNN in a telephone interview Saturday from his Baghdad headquarters.

Townsend is the first senior military commander to speak on the record about the US possibly challenging the Syrian Air Force in the wake of an incident just days ago.

Townsend, who took command this week, made the remarks following what defense officials described as an “unusual” incident Thursday in northern Syria in which the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used warplanes to attack an area near where US special operations forces were operating in support of Kurdish forces, which are the Americans’ key ally in the conflict.

Several US troops had to be quickly moved, and US jet patrols over northern Syria have been beefed up.

Townsend also said in the interview that he plans to keep up the pressure on ISIS and laid out an ambitious military goal: He told CNN he hopes the US-led coalition can “defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria in this next year.” Townsend emphasized he is aware that may be ambitious, but he added, “That’s my goal. I am intent to do that.”

When asked how he would define the defeat of ISIS, the general said it would be when the so-called caliphate no longer exists and does not control significant population centers. “Do I think ISIL will be gone from Iraq and Syria?” he asked, using another acronym for ISIS. “No. But I want them out of the cities.”

Townsend was blunt in discussing the senior leaders of ISIS. “I want them dead or on the run in a hole somewhere in the desert, and significantly less of a threat,” he said.

Meanwhile, ISIS is still planning global attacks, Townsend said, adding that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, remains in charge and continues to issue orders that are communicated and followed. Baghdadi and other ISIS leaders are being “actively hunted,” Townsend said.

The US has long believed senior leaders are in and around the city of Raqqa in Syria, the ISIS-proclaimed capital of its caliphate. Townsend said local Arab and Kurdish fighters, trained by the US, could start moving into areas outside Raqqa in coming weeks.

Aerial Close Encounter between US, Syrian Jets
Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne / CNN

(August 20, 2016) — Two American F-22s on patrol over Hasakah, Syria, flew within a mile of two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets and “encouraged” them to leave Friday, a US defense official told CNN.

The close encounter comes only a day after two Syrian warplanes attacked the Kurds, a key US ally, forcing US special operations forces to be withdrawn from their position in northern Syria.

The American aircraft are part of the beefed-up US air combat patrols in the area that the Pentagon had announced following Thursday’s attack. The pilots of the F-22 Raptors tried to call the Syrian aircraft cockpit-to-cockpit but got no response, the US official added.

US defense officials had told CNN earlier that the military had pulled US special operations forces from their northern Syria position after the Syrian military began bombing nearby, attacking Kurdish positions in and around the city of Hasakah.

The official indicated it was a relatively small number of US forces that moved out of their locations. It was not immediately clear how many are left, if any, in northern Syria. No US forces were wounded during the Syrian bombing, according to officials. Another senior defense official told CNN, “If the Syrians try this again, they are at great risk of losing an aircraft.”

The attack in the Hasakah area has deeply unsettled Pentagon officials. US special operations forces have been in the area for months conducting training and advisory missions with the Arab and Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the major US ally in the region.

When the bombing began, coalition forces on the ground tried to call the Syrian aircraft on a common radio channel, but there was no response, according to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.

He declined to say which coalition forces tried to reach the Syrians. But US personnel quickly called the Russians on a previously established channel to try to determine who was firing. Davis said the Russians assured the US it was not them. The US at that point made it clear through the Russians that the US would “take whatever action is necessary” to defend US forces on the ground if the strikes continued.

The US quickly sent fighter jets to the area, but by the time the US planes arrived, the Syrians were withdrawing. There were a total of two Syrian Su-24 aircraft hitting Kurdish targets in four locations, the official said.

Davis called the entire situation “very unusual” and said the Pentagon was “hard pressed” to think of another time when Syrian forces came so close to attacking the US, even if that was not their intention.

He underscored it is well known that US forces are in the area. But Davis said that there had been “tensions” between Kurds and Syrian-controlled enclaves in the area in the days before the bombardment.

The Pentagon has now increased air patrols in the region and plans to continue that, he said. Davis warned the Syrian regime about taking similar action in the future. “They would be well advised not to interfere with coalition forces or our partners,” he said.

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