MOSCOW/BEIRUT/PARIS: The number of U.S. diplomats in Syria has doubled as Daesh (ISIS) near a military defeat, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis said Tuesday.
The U.S.-led coalition, along with local partners, has largely cleared the militant group from Iraq and Syria but remains concerned about its resurgence.
“Our diplomats there on the ground have been doubled in number. As we see the military operations becoming less, we will see the diplomatic effort now able to take [root],” Mattis said. He did not give a specific number.
A U.S. official, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis was referring to State Department employees, including diplomats and personnel involved in humanitarian assistance, and that the increase was recent.
The U.S. does not have an embassy in Syria.
In a sign of the threat still posed by the militant group, security forces in northern Syria’s Raqqa said Sunday they had uncovered a Daesh sleeper cell which was plotting large attacks across the devastated city.
“We are still in a tough fight, make no mistake about it,” Mattis said.
He said troops would work after the defeat of Daesh to ensure that the militant group did not return.
The U.S. has said it will pursue “a strategy of isolation,” including sanctions, with its allies if Assad holds up a political process aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year-old war.
In the northern Syrian city of Manbij, U.S. and NATO allies Turkey troops have started training together ahead of conducting joint patrols, a U.S. official said.
The move comes even as relations between Washington and Ankara have recently soured over a number of issues, including Turkey’s potential purchase of a Russian air-defense system.Manbij, once in the hands of Daesh, is now held by Kurdish fighters.
Under an agreement with the U.S. to reduce tensions, Turkey started military patrols around Manbij in June, while the U.S. conducted its own patrols.
Now troops from both countries are training together in Turkey to conduct joint patrols, U.S. Army spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said.
“Right now, they are still operating independent, coordinated patrols but they are also starting ... the joint training,” Ryan told Pentagon reporters. He did not say when the joint patrols would begin.
The Turkish and U.S. troops are studying communications and rules of engagement and are undergoing medical training.
Fueling tensions, Turkey is embroiled in a dispute with Washington over the detention of a U.S. pastor, and is in talks with Russia to buy the S-400 missile system.
President Donald Trump in August signed a defense authorization act that prohibits the delivery of F-35 stealth aircrafts to Turkey if it goes ahead with the S-400 purchase.
Russia meanwhile delivered an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during a meeting broadcasted by Rossiya 24 TV Tuesday.
“The work was finished a day ago,” Shoigu said, adding that the system would allow improving the security of Russian military personal in Syria.
Russia decided to supply the system to Syria despite Israeli objections after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria in September.
The White House previously said it hoped Russia would reconsider the move, which U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton called a “significant escalation” of Syria’s seven-year-old war.
Separately, Syria’s foreign minister said in remarks broadcast Tuesday the Iranian ballistic missile attack on militants in eastern Syria the previous day was part of “legitimate” cooperation between the two countries to combat terrorism. Walid al-Moallem’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview with the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched six ballistic missiles as well as drone bombers into eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zor province Monday, targeting Daesh militants it blamed for an attack on a military parade in Iran last month.
“The Iranian missiles are in the framework of combatting terrorism,” al-Moallem said.
Spokesperson Ryan told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday that the Iranian missiles that were fired into Syria through Iraqi air space “potentially jeopardize the forces on the ground that are actually fighting [Daesh] and puts them in danger.”
Ryan said U.S. forces were not in danger during the attack, “but any time anyone just fires missiles through uncoordinated air space, it’s a threat.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, meanwhile, said its strikes targeted only Daesh militants for the first time, claiming that some 40 militant leaders were killed in the strike.