Editor’s note: The shelling did not ultimately kill or injure any US troops but it caused them to withdraw (once it was over) from their border oupost so inentional or not it would seem a success for Turkey.
A contingent of U.S. Special Forces was caught up in Turkish shelling against U.S.-backed Kurdish positions in northern Syria, days after President Donald Trump told his Turkish counterpart he would withdraw U.S. troops from certain positions in the area. A senior Pentagon official said shelling by the Turkish forces was so heavy that the U.S. personnel considered firing back in self-defense.
Newsweek has learned through both an Iraqi Kurdish intelligence official and the senior Pentagon official that Special Forces operating on Mashtenour hill in the majority-Kurdish city of Kobani fell under artillery fire from Turkish forces conducting their so-called “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish fighters backed by the U.S. but considered terrorist organizations by Turkey. No injuries have been reported.
Instead of returning fire, the Special Forces withdrew once the shelling had ceased. Newsweek previously reported Wednesday that the current rules of engagement for U.S. forces continue to be centered around self-defense and that no order has been issued by the Pentagon for a complete withdrawal from Syria.
Pentagon now confirming: "U.S. troops in the vicinity of Kobani came under artillery fire from Turkish positions at approximately 9 p.m. local Oct. 11. The explosion occurred….in an area known by the Turks to have U.S. forces present…" https://t.co/Ct25KYlWDj
— Ryan Browne (@rabrowne75) October 11, 2019
The Pentagon official said that Turkish forces should be aware of U.S. positions “down to the grid.” The official could not specify the exact number of personnel present, but indicated they were “small numbers below company level,” so somewhere between 15 and 100 troops. Newsweek has reached out to the Pentagon for comment on the situation.
The Turkish Defense Ministry issued a statement in response to Newsweek’s report, denying that its military had targeted U.S. forces. The ministry affirmed that “Turkish border outposts south of Suruc came under Dochka and mortar fire from the hills located approximately 1,000 meters southwest of a U.S. observation post.”
“In self-defense, reciprocal fire was opened on the terrorist positions of the attack. Turkey did not open fire at the U.S. observation post in any way,” the statement added. “All precautions were taken prior to opening fire in order to prevent any harm to the U.S. base. As a precaution, we ceased fire upon receiving information from the U.S. We firmly reject the claim that U.S. or Coalition forces were fired upon.” [Interesting statement, if the Turks had already taken “all precautions” to make sure the US base would not be in any danger, why stop the perfectly safe shelling once US complaint was received.]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long warned he would storm the border to establish a so-called “safe zone” and, after the White House announced Sunday that U.S. troops would stand aside, he launched the operation earlier this week.
Turkish forces have fired on a declared U.S. military outpost in northern Syria. Turkey knows all of our locations down to the precise grid coordinate as confirmed by SECDEF and CJCS only two hours ago. This was not a mistake.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) October 11, 2019
In its Sunday statement, the White House had said that U.S. troops “will no longer be in the immediate area” as Turkey and allied Syrian rebels commenced their assault. During Friday’s press conference, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Mark Milley said that U.S. personnel were “still co-located” save for “two small outposts” near the border with Turkey. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said 50 Special Forces personnel had been repositioned ahead of the Turkish and allied Syrian rebel assault.
“A senior Pentagon official said shelling was so heavy that the U.S. personnel considered firing back in self-defense.” https://t.co/by7aleTUXq
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) October 11, 2019
The U.S. first partnered with the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 to battle the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) as the country shifted its support away from an increasingly Islamist opposition seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group proved effective in beating back the jihadis, but the U.S.’ decision was opposed by Turkey, a NATO member that has faced off with a decades-long insurgency by Kurdish separatists.
Turkey remains the last major sponsor of the Syrian opposition, made up largely of members of the country’s Syrian Arab majority, and has mobilized up to a thousand fighters from these forces, along with hundreds of its own troops, in order to seize territory currently administered by a majority-Kurdish autonomous administration that spans the country’s north and east. This self-governing entity has not been recognized by Ankara nor the central government in Damascus, which has secured much of the rest of the country’s territory with the help of Russia, Iran and allied militias.
The Pentagon has repeatedly urged Turkey to halt its operations and, though he initially signaled support for Erdogan’s plans following their phone call Sunday, Trump has since threatened to sanction the Turkish economy if the country’s military action did anything “off limits.” While the president has repeatedly called for an end to the costly, “endless wars” launched by his predecessors in the Middle East and beyond, he also warned he may send more troops to Syria if the situation was not resolved.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted that he had “one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!”
Turkish artillery hit close to a US special operations unit near the Syrian city of Kobani on Friday, according to a US official familiar with the initial assessment.
The artillery shells hit several hundred yards from where the US forces were located. There are no American injuries in the early reports and at this time no indication this was deliberate, the official said. Newsweek was first to report on the incident.
Turkey has denied its forces fired on the US troops.
A senior US defense official said one round hit near an outpost location where US troops were located. The US forces then moved to a nearby local headquarters where a larger group of forces were located.
The official also said that right after the explosion, US jets patrolled the area to try to determine where the launch came from and concluded it most likely was an artillery round . The official said that still needs to be confirmed.
A second US official confirmed that there was an explosion “in the vicinity” of US forces, but said the US government had not yet verified the origin of the explosion.
“We are aware of the explosion. We know right now that no US service members have been injured,” the second US official told CNN, adding that “we don’t know for sure from whom it came, and we don’t have verification from where right now.”
The official added that the US forces were at an outpost “near Kobani” at the time of the explosion.
‘This was not a mistake’
A third official said that “there has been no activity since the explosion and we have no indication that there was any intentional fire on US forces.”
A former senior Trump administration official disagreed. “This was not a mistake,” tweeted Brett McGurk, the former presidential envoy to the global coalition to counter ISIL.
“Turkish forces have fired on a declared US military outpost in northern Syria. Turkey knows all of our locations down to the precise grid coordinate as confirmed by” Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley “only two hours ago,” McGurk said.
“With each day this Turkish attack continues, the risks increase for American personnel and our ability to get out safely at all becomes gravely jeopardized,” McGurk continued. “Either [President Donald] Trump changes course rapidly and clearly (ASAP) or else it is necessary to plan a safe exit.”
Earlier on Friday, Milley told reporters at the Pentagon that “the Turkish military is fully aware down to explicit grid coordinate detail of the locations of US forces,” later adding “we retain the right of self-defense.”
At that same news conference, Esper stressed that the US will remain focused on the safety of its men and women in uniform and “as such we are repositioning additional forces in the region to assist with force protection as necessary.”
A US defense official also told CNN earlier Friday that the US has shared a list of “no-strike” locations with the government of Turkey, which goes beyond just where US troops are located and includes Kurdish areas, including Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled prisons holding ISIS prisoners that the US sees as necessary to the fight against the terrorist group.
Turkey’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement late Friday night denying that its forces fired on US troops and said instead that its forces were attacked from a position a thousand meters away from the US post.
“Turkish border outposts south of Suruç came under Dochka and mortar fire from the hills located approximately 1,000 meters southwest of a U.S. observation post. In self-defense, reciprocal fire was opened on the terrorist positions of the attack,” the Ministry wrote.
The Defense Ministry added that Turkey “did not open fire at the U.S. observation post in any way” and that “all precautions were taken prior to opening fire in order to prevent any harm to the US base.”
Turkish forces, however, “ceased fire upon receiving information from the US,” the Ministry said, adding that: “We firmly reject the claim that US or Coalition forces were fired upon.”
The senior US defense official confirmed that the Turks ceased firing when they learned the nearby troops were Americans.
A resident of Kobani told CNN that he witnessed the artillery shelling.
Alaa Sadoun, a journalist living in Kobani, said the shelling hit a small strategic hill near Kobani called Mashta Nour, where locals believe the US Forces were present. After the strike, a military vehicle left the area, Sadoun said.
US forces are known to have small units stationed at small outposts at varying locations along the Syria-Turkey border.