US-backed Syrian rebels, Kurds launch op to cut ‘last ISIS funnel’ to Europe – report

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters. © Rodi Said
Following weeks of preparation, thousands of Syrian rebel fighters directed by US special forces advisers are launching an offensive against an ISIS stronghold in Manbij, saddling the route used to bring in European jihadists, US officials exclusively told Reuters.

The objective of the operation starting Tuesday is to take under control a strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border called the “Manbij pocket,” reportedly hosting the last remaining major supply route of the terrorists from Europe and back.

“It's significant in that it's their last remaining funnel,” Reuters cited a US military official as saying.

The Democratic Forces of Syria, reportedly assisted by Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG), constitute the backbone of the operation’s strike force.

The number of American military advisers is small and they will not be engaging in direct fighting. Instead, they will be directing the operation, US officials told Reuters.

“They'll be as close as they need to be for the [Syrian fighters] to complete the operation. But they will not engage in direct combat,” the official said.

Last week, the White House admitted to the presence of up to 300 US operatives in Syria.

The US-led antiterrorist coalition is providing air support to the operation and, according to Reuters, fire support is also provided from the ground-based firing positions on Turkish territory.

The Kurdish YPG militia accounts for reportedly about 20 percent of the offensive forces, which could be important for Turkey, which has been urging the US to exclude Kurds from the American allies in the region.

There has been at least one recent dispute between Ankara and Washington, when Turkey questioned its relationship with the US following American soldiers being spotted in Syria wearing badges of the YPG, a Kurdish organization considered terrorist by Turkey.

Ankara opposes the idea of Kurds controlling Manbij, so the US reportedly assured Turkey that Kurds would only help to oust ISIS, and then the liberated area will be controlled by Syrian Arab fighters.

“After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying ... So you'll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land,” the US official told Reuters, confirming that Turkey’s military has supported the offensive.