Middle East

France says special forces in Syria advising rebels

A Manbij Military Council fighter stands at a lookout point overlooking rising smoke from Manbij city, Aleppo province, Syria June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

PARIS: France has deployed special forces in northern Syria to advise the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting the ISIS group, a defense ministry official said Thursday.

"The offensive at Manbij is clearly being backed by a certain number of states including France. It's the usual support -- it's advisory," the official told AFP, without giving further details on the deployment.

France until now has only acknowledged the presence in the region of around 150 members of its special forces, deployed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The SDF, a U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab alliance, are on the northern edge of Manbij, a strategic town held by ISIS that serves as a waypoint between the Turkish border and the extremists' stronghold of Raqqa.

The French special forces will not intervene militarily themselves and are not supposed to engage in combat with ISIS militants, the defense ministry official said.

Tabqa, another ISIS-held transit town which lies near Syria's largest dam, is also under attack.

France has 2,500 men in its special forces, of whom around 400 are currently deployed in 17 countries, mainly in the Sahel, the military said.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had indicated last Friday, in remarks to a small state TV channel covering French politics, that French troops were helping operations at Manbij.

"We are providing support through weapons supplies, air presence and advice," he told the Public Senate channel.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, French special forces are already deployed, accompanying Kurdish peshmerga fighters to the front line near the city of Mosul.

The French help the peshmerga to locate and neutralize improvised explosive devices (IED) and to handle 20-millimeter guns supplied by France.

The IEDs, often buried in the ground and hard to spot, are the scourge of forces fighting ISIS.

Hundreds of French nationals have gone to Syria to fight alongside ISIS fighters, but the special forces "are not there just because there are French nationals there", the defense ministry official said.

France was targeted by extremists in 2015, with shootings at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January and then a series of attacks in the French capital in November. A total of 147 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

Several of the gunmen involved were French citizens who had returned from fighting in Syria.

The U.S. military says the offensive on Manbij is being led by 3,000 local Arab fighters, backed by 500 Kurdish militiamen.





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