US Army General Joseph Votel, who was recently appointed as Washington’s top commander in the Middle East, paid a secret visit to Syria on Saturday to check on the progress of US forces in helping local fighters to fend off the DAESH terrorist group.
Votel arrived in northern Syria after entering the country from neighbouring Iraq, where a day earlier he had met with Iraqi military commanders and US forces.
Head of US Central Command Joseph Votel meets with Army Chief of Staff Othman Al-Ghanemi to discuss developments. pic.twitter.com/1ruyzUyDX4
— Mustafa Al-Khaqani (@Khaqani_M) May 20, 2016
He is the first high ranking US military officer known to have visited the country since the US-led coalition against DAESH was formed in 2014.
Speaking in an interview after his arrival, the Votel said he had a moral obligation to personally assess the situation on the ground, where US troops have been advising the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an umbrella group formed last year with US support that mainly consists of local Kurdish forces.
"I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here," Votel said, "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 brought reporters with him, added that the US does not have anything to hide regarding its activities in Syria.
"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," he said.
There is concern among US allies in the Middle East over Washington’s strategy in Syria, as a fragmented opposition has made it difficult to find forces willing to fight against both DAESH and the regime of Bashar al Assad.
Turkey has been one of the most outspoken critics of US policy in Syria, particularly of its support for the SDF.
Although the US is trying to boost the number of Arab fighters in the SDF, the vast majority of its fighters are Kurds believed to be linked to the YPG – the armed wing of the PYD – which is the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist group based in southeastern Turkey.
Washington has shied away from endorsing Ankara’s calls for the establishment of a buffer zone along Turkey's border in northern Aleppo, control of which would be handed to the Free Syrian Army once DAESH is cleared from the area.
Instead, Washington has chosen to support the SDF with approximately 200 military advisers on the ground, with another 250 set to join them soon.
The SDF was formed after the US abandoned its short-lived train-and-equip programme, which would have seen "moderate" Syrian opposition fighters given the means to take on DAESH before being deployed in Syria.
However, the US was unable to identify a sufficient number of fighters suitable for the programme, and the few who were sent into Syria were kidnapped and stripped of their weapons immediately after crossing the border.
At the end of his visit, Votel told reporters that his confidence in the US's new strategy had "increased," adding that it is "working and working well."
SDF deputy commander Qarhaman Hasan was less positive, however, telling reporters that he had handed the Americans a list of requests for armoured vehicles and heavy weapons and adding that the SDF has had to resort to arms smuggling.
"You can't run an army on smuggling," he said.
The group’s spokesman Talal Selo also criticised US support for the SDF, saying the assistance provided thus far has been "very useless."
While benefitting from US airdrops of weapons and ammunition, the SDF has also taken advantage of Russian air strikes on Syrian opposition forces to advance in northern Aleppo, where the YPG hopes to establish a corridor across the ethnically mixed region to link the territory it controls around the city of Kobane to its self-declared "canton" of Afrin.
The SDF is also believed to be preparing to launch a major offensive on the city of Raqqa, which currently serves as DAESH’s de facto capital, but there is concern that the group’s predominantly Kurdish character could damage its effectiveness in taking control of the mainly Arab city.