Exclusive-US-backed force in Syria: more air defence needed after deadly drone attack

By Thomson Reuters Feb 8, 2024 | 9:56 AM

By Maya Gebeily

(Reuters) – A force that has been the backbone of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State said additional air defences should be deployed in northeast Syria after six of its fighters were killed in a drone attack it blamed on pro-Iran factions.

Mazloum Abdi, commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, said his force considered it “a dangerous development when our camps are targeted in drone attacks by factions backed by Iran.”

Abdi’s remarks to Reuters from northeast Syria suggest the force’s fighters — deployed alongside U.S. troops to fight remnants of Islamic State — are increasingly vulnerable to widening regional instability in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian group Hamas.

Bases across Syria’s east and northeast hosting U.S. troops and SDF fighters have faced a slew of drone and rocket attacks as pro-Iran militias declaring support for the Palestinians seek to attack U.S. and Western interests and fight Israel.

A drone strike by Iran-backed militants on a U.S. outpost in Jordan on Jan 28 killed three U.S. forces. On Feb. 4, the SDF said an explosive drone attack by Iran-backed armed groups in eastern Syria killed six of their fighters.

Asked whether he had requested additional military backing to fend off such attacks, Abdi said his Kurdish-led force would “require technical capabilities and an increase in the aerial defensive systems” deployed in northeast Syria.

“From their (the U.S.) side, they confirmed they would try and expend efforts to prevent these attacks,” he told Reuters.

In Washington, the Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Spearheaded by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and including Arab fighters, the SDF has been a major partner for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State over the last decade. It holds a quarter of Syria, including oil fields and areas where some 900 U.S. troops are deployed.

Following rumours that the U.S. was considering pulling those troops out, Abdi said he had received reassurances by the State Department, White House and the Pentagon that their mission would continue.

But he said a withdrawal “is possible in the future… Truthfully, we don’t ask for American troops to stay here forever. That’s not possible.”

Abdi warned that any U.S. troop pull-out would “multiply several times over” the threats that the SDF faces from Iran-backed troops, Islamic State and Turkey, which considers the YPG and the SDF by extension to be “terrorist” groups.

“If American forces do withdraw, depending on the circumstances, naturally we will go towards the plans that suit the interests of our people and the make-up of the region,” Abdi added.

But that would not include a long-term partnership with the Syrian armed forces, which he said did not have the capacity to defend against IS.

The Syrian military has been gutted following more than a decade of fighting off rebel and hardline factions seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an opposition struggle that began following Assad’s brutal crackdown of protests against him.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily, Additional reporting from Phil Stewart in Washington, Editing by William Maclean)