In a briefing via telephone from Baghdad, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend answered questions regarding the current situation in Syria and Iraq.
Townsend first commented on the reported deaths of more than 200 civilians due to US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. “I’ll say this, if we did it, and I’d say there’s at least a fair chance that we did. It was an unintentional accident of war and we will transparently report it to you when we’re ready,” Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told journalists.
He stressed the coalition had set the highest standards for protecting civilians and that “most of them are dying at the hands of ISIS and that’s the real horror, the real tragedy of Mosul.”
The Lieutenant General confirmed the seizure of the Tabqah airfield, on the south side of the Syrian city. He pointed out that the Tabqah dam is a vital resource for the people of Syria, not in any imminent danger and, to the knowledge of Townsend, not structurally damaged. “So, if something happens to the Tabqa Dam, it will be at the hands of ISIS not the Coalition,” he said.
One question from Joe Tabet of US-based Al Hurra concerned a recent statement by Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), who expects Raqqa to join the autonomous region (Rojava) in Syria’s north once it is freed from the Islamic State (IS).
“What I think is that the people of northern Syria, all of them, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, others alike, are determining what their future’s going to be. And, so, I don’t really see a Kurdish federal state and I don’t see – I don’t know whether Raqqa’s going to be part of it or not. Our job is to rid northern Syria of ISIS and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Al Hurra journalist also asked Townsend if he could assure that the Kurds will have no presence in Raqqa after IS has been pushed out.
“So, Raqqa is largely, by overwhelming majority, an Arab city. And the Syrian Democratic Forces are recruiting the Syrian – they are enlargening the Syrian Arab Coalition, part of their formation, to liberate Raqqa. Will there be Kurds that will fight in Raqqa? Certainly there will be, because there are Kurds from Raqqa. Raqqa is not homogeneous. They are all the peoples who live in northern Syria who are also living in Raqqa,” Townsend said.
Kasim Ileri of Turkey’s state-run Anadolu News Agency followed up on Tabet’s question while arguing that Townsend’s answer “doesn’t seem to be compatible with what they are doing down there”.
“Sounds like you have a bit of a political agenda there. Your question doesn’t seem all that neutral to me. Sounds like you’re trying to troop lead me to a particular answer,” the Lieutenant General said.
“But I’ll tell you this, I have had private conversations with our Syrian Democratic Forces partners and they include Kurds, they include Arabs and they include Turkmen. They include Christians, they include Muslims, they include people who don’t have a particular religion.
“So I’ve talked to their commanders. In fact, their commander for the Raqqa operation is an Arab born and raised in Tabqa. So, here’s what I’m seeing. I’m seeing what is probably a pretty broad coalition of people and the Kurds may be providing the leadership, because they have – they have a capable leader who’s stepped up to this challenge. And they are providing some of the organisational skill, but I see a large contingent about 23 to 25, 000 so far and growing, Arabs, who are marching to liberate their part of northern Syria. So, I don’t see a Kurdish state. I see a multi-cultural, multi-party, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Syrian region being liberated from ISIS. Over.”