US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), has secretly headed to Northern Syria to meet US-backed militant groups, two days after announcing that Washington was mulling more US boots on the ground in the Arab country.
Votel, who oversees the US-led military operations against alleged Daesh (ISIL) targets in Iraq and Syria, visited the frontline cities of Kobani and Raqqah on Friday and met with commanders of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militants.
According to Talal Sello, a spokesman for the SDF, Votel discussed the militant group’s Raqqah offensive and the possible ways to expand coordination and support during the hours-long meeting.
The SDF launched its campaign to capture Raqqah in November 2016 and took control of some areas up the Euphrates Valley. The group enjoys air support from the US-led coalition, which has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since 2014.
Votel has also discussed the situation in Raqqah with Turkish officials, who are unhappy with Washington’s ties with the SDF and have reportedly offered alternative plans to capture the militant-riddled city without the group’s involvement.
Nearly two-thirds of the 30,000 SDF militants belong to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers a “terrorist” group.
Turkey has been leading a major military intervention in Syria since August 2016, in an alleged bid to push back Kurdish opposition groups and Daesh from its border with Syria.
The timing of Votel’s trip is significant as Votel said Wednesday that more American troops might be needed in Syria to boost the US-backed militants’ “mobility” and “firepower.” In addition, a February 27 deadline is looming for US officials to provide President Donald Trump with a comprehensive plan for Washington’s involvement in Syria.
Votel’s trip comes days after a similar visit to Syria by Republican Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Senator McCain traveled to northern Syria last week to visit US forces deployed there and to discuss the counter-ISIL campaign and ongoing operations to retake Raqqah,” the Arizona senator’s spokeswoman said Wednesday.