Colonel Ryan Dillon, the U.S.-led coalition spokesman in Syria, said Tuesday that coalition forces exchanged fire with presumed Turkish-backed rebels near Manbij in northern Syria while patrolling the area. Coalition forces that have been “conducting patrols in the area to keep tensions down received fire multiple times over the course of the last two weeks,” Dillon told CNN. He also noted that Turkish-backed rebels firing on coalition forces “is not acceptable,” and that they had “let our counterparts in Turkey know this and we continue to conduct these patrols but are always prepared and ready to defend ourselves in that area.” The incident occurred roughly as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Turkey to meet with the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Dillon also made clear that Turkish soldiers were not directly involved in the recent attacks on U.S. personnel.
The U.S.-led coalition forces include European support for the air war against ISIS as well as some 300 U.S. special operations forces and 400 U.S. Marines. The coalition backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting against ISIS in Syria’s northwest. Turkey, a U.S. strategic partner in the region, has a long history of conflict with what they call Kurdish separatists – particularly the YPG, the main component of the SDF. Turkish-backed rebels, which originated as forces opposing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and SDF have exchanged small arms and artillery fire in the northern parts of Syria before, and Turkey has previously backed the fighters with its own tanks, air force, and special operations forces – though not in this instance. Coalition forces often conduct “overt patrols” in the area to deter clashes and play the role of peacekeeper between the parties. The incident highlights the complexity of the Syrian conflict with U.S.-backed forces clashing with Turkish-backed forces as well as the Russian-backed Syrian military, all of which are battling ISIS near Raqqa, the terrorist group’s stronghold and capital.