Top US commander makes unannounced visit to Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria, The leader U.S Central Command visited Syria for 11 hours Saturday, reportedly to check on the progress of U.S. trained local forces fighting to defeat Islamic State.

U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Joseph Votel made a secret trip to Syria Saturday to meet with local forces there being trained by the U.S. military to defeat Islamic State. Photo from U.S. Department of Defense

General Joseph Votel spent time in northern Syria and met with U.S. military advisors and the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces made up of Arab and Kurdish rebel forces, BBC reported.

Speaking after his unannounced visit, Votel said training local forces to fight IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, is the right approach. “I left with increased confidence in their capabilities and our ability to support them. I think that model is working and working well.”

The SDF is made up of about 25,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Arab fighters.

The visit occurred during a trip to other countries in the region, reported CNN, which had a crew accompanying Votel.

The U.S. military is in the midst of working to accelerate efforts to bring more local Arab and Kurdish forces into the fight in both Syria and Iraq to fight IS.

Votel is the highest-ranking U.S. military official to travel to Syria during its war and this was the first daylight U.S. transport mission into Syria.

At the U.S. military’s request, CNN did not disclose the exact locations Votel visited. The network also agreed to not disclose the intense security precautions taken for the trip, including how Votel flew into Syria.

The visit occurred as the first of 250 additional U.S. special operations troops are arriving in Syria to work with local forces.

The U.S. troops are focusing on training small numbers of forces, then sending them out into the field with larger groups. The local forces are learning very specialized tasks, including how to call in precise and timely intelligence reports from the battlefield that could result in coalition airstrikes against IS targets.

While the ultimate goal in Syria is to assemble perhaps thousands of Arab fighters to retake Raqqa from IS, top U.S. officials privately say that could take months.

The meetings included discussions with Syrian Democratic Forces whose officials are asking for arms and ammunition.

By Yvette C. Hammett