- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Top American Gen. Joseph Dunford met Tuesday with his Turkish and Russian military counterparts in a surprise summit in Turkey in an attempt to head off growing regional tensions and focus the fight on Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria.

The meeting came less than 24 hours after the Pentagon disclosed that a small deployment of U.S. forces had been sent to the northern Syrian city of Manbij to monitor Syrian, Russian and Turkish forces positioned around the strategically important city.

Officials at the summit, held in the Turkish coastal town of Antalya, characterized the meeting as an effort to ensure forces from all three countries operating in northern Syria stay out of each other’s way — a sign of swirling cross-currents and a bewildering roster of players in the Syrian conflict.

“There is a need for an effective coordination in the efforts to clear Syria of all terror groups because so many countries are involved there,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters in Ankara Tuesday.

“If we cannot establish coordination, the risk of a conflict that we would not desire can emerge. That’s the real aim of the meeting,” he said.

Gen. Dunford, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was invited to attend the summit by the Turkish military, a NATO ally and key U.S. counterterrorism partner.

It is the first time Gen. Dunford has met with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, since a meeting between the two general officers in Azerbaijan in February.

The U.S. already has a standing agreement with Moscow to avoid accidental clashes between both countries’ air forces operating in the skies above Syria. However, that agreement has been punctuated by several instances of American warplanes mistakenly striking Russian-backed forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Last week Russian fighters launched airstrikes against a U.S. camp in Syria, which had been training anti-Assad Syrian militiamen battling Islamic State. Gen. Dunford also pressed the Russian and Turkish delegation to keep their forces focused on the ongoing fight against Islamic State, Joint Staff spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks said.

The Antalya talks, which are expected to stretch into Wednesday, was driven by “the current situation of the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria with an effort to wage a more effective fight,” Capt. Hicks told Reuters.

But recent clashes between Turkish and U.S.-backed forces around Manbij, al Bab and other areas along the Syrian-Turkish border, coupled with the emergence of Russian and Syrian forces on the Islamic State battlefield, indicate those countries are already positioning themselves to take advantage of the situation when Islamic State is ousted from its “caliphate” based in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Turkish forces have already pushed deep into northern Syria to retake Islamic State-held territory along its borders. Ankara, incensed that U.S.-led coalition forces opted to back the coalition of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF — to battle Islamic State, launched the operation in August.

In an attempt to defuse the increasingly tense situation along the Turkish border, American commanders in Syria deployed a small detachment of Army Stryker combat vehicles near western Manbij, an area reportedly the site of skirmishes between Turkish forces and Manbij Military Council, a faction of the SDF, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday. He refused to characterize the Stryker detachment as a peacekeeping force, noting their presence was merely to keep partner nations “focused on the common enemy” of Islamic State and their self-styled capital of Raqqa.

Further complicating the situation are Syrian and Russian forces, who are encroaching into coalition territory around Manbij. A Syrian aid convoy, accompanied by Russian armored personnel carriers, was slowly advancing into western Manbij, Capt. Davis said Monday. Since the fall of rebel-held Aleppo to Syrian government forces, sparked by a blistering Russian aerial bombing campaign, Damascus has been moving to consolidate its hold on the country.

While Mr. Assad and his backers in Moscow have largely stayed out of the fight against Islamic State, Ankara’s growing presence south of Manbij along the Turkey-Syria border poses a clear threat to Mr. Assad’s efforts to reassert control.

Capt. Davis declined to comment on what actions U.S. soldiers attached to the Stryker detachment may take should fighting break out again between Turkish troops and members of the Manbij council, or if Syrian troops continue their advance into coalition lines around Manbij.

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