US Chief of Staff General Miley’s Surprise Visit to the AANES: A Sign of Hope and a Signal of Hope, Resistance, and Solidarity
This week was marked by a surprise visit to the Autonomous Administration of Northern and East Syria (AANES) by US Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Miley. Gen. Miley is the highest-ranking officer to serve in the Department of the Army, the key military and deputy to the Secretary of the Army, the key military advisor to the National Security Council, the Secretary of Defense, and President Joe Biden. The surprise visit is a significant political symbolic gesture of support and was backed by an even more symbolic series of statements.
First, the trip itself was highly irregular and rare given the continuous bombardment of the region by Turkish forces and their increasingly uncontrollable proxies which are dominated by anti-Western takfiri groups would be gasping for a chance to take a shot at one of the US’s top military leaders. In response to the rapidly emerging and intensifying risks posed by ISIS that not only continue to threaten, the AANES, the SDF, the US, and global coalition forces serving alongside the SDF and the world as a whole, Gen. Miley reaffirmed the US’s commitment to the AANES and SDF stating the deployment of US forces is still a necessary risk as part of the US-led Global Coalition’s partnership with the SDF in the mission to contain and prevent a resurgence of the violent, takfiri group. American officials involved in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) have echoed this sentiment stating that ISIS could still very well reemerge as a major threat at the local, regional, and global levels.
During his visit to the AANES, Gen. Miley was asked by the press entourage following him if he still believed that the continued deployment of approximately 900 US servicemembers was a risk that he was willing to continue to back. The General replied by saying that the mission of those 900 US servicemembers was an issue of defending the national security of the US and added a question of his own” if you think that that’s [US national security] important, then the answer is Yes”. He went on to answer his question stating, “I happen to think that’s important”.
Gen. Miley’s visit also included a meeting with US Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane the current commander of the US-led coalition to defeat IS. The visit reaffirmed that the SDF remains the key, most effective local partner on the ground that the US and the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS continues to have in support of OIR: Syria and Iraq, and particularly as a force that serves as a buffer between Russia, Iran and Turkey’s regional ambitions and the Assad government’s determination to “reclaim every last inch of Syria” and the unknown, brutal consequences that any of those scenarios would likely bring for the Syrian people and the fate of both the AANES and the SDF.
Maj. Gen. McFarlane also went on to comment on Turkey’s effect on the US-led Global Coalition’s mission to prevent a resurgence of ISIS in the region. On the subject of Ankara’s continuous threats of major military action against the SDF, the key partners of Turkey’s major NATO ally the US, Maj. Gen. McFarlane described the rhetoric, previous and continued attacks, and the possibility of a major offensive as a “distraction from our [the SDF-US-Coalition’s] main mission”. Turkey’s previous offensives and attacks by their proxy forces have targeted positions where US servicemembers were stationed on multiple occasions. In statements from years past, Brett McGurk, the current White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa nominated by President Biden and former Special Presidential Envoy to Syria appointed by President Obama, McGurk has stated that “time and time again” Turkey had been the biggest problem in the US-led Global Coalition’s mission to defeat ISIS, often refusing to close borders and tolerating ISIS militants illegally crossing into Syria from Turkey. The Clingendael Institute has also published 2 reports on how Turkey’s strategies for Syria and Libya were based on the recruitment of Syrian proxies most of whom came from Islamic Nationalist militias, Jihadist groups such as HTS (as-Nusra Front) the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, and even ISIS.
Overall, the surprise visit by Gen. Miley was a positive and powerful message to all actors involved including Turkey, Russia, Iran, and most specifically ISIS, that the US forces were here to stay and had no plans to leave. Gen. Miley highlighted that the fight with ISIS was far from over. Maj. Gen. McFarlane believed that there would come a day when the SDF could manage on their own and “independently have a sustainable capacity and capability to keep ISIS in check”. Gen. Miley said that he believed that together with the US, its coalition members, and its key partners, the SDF could achieve an “enduring defeat” of ISIS.
The visit comes at a crucial time following the massive earthquake that struck both Syria and Turkey, creating chaos across the region and a continuously mounting death toll. Turkish-backed forces continued shelling SDF positions even in the hours after the earthquake struck. Turkish drones have continued to carry out illegal cross-border strikes targeting both civilians and SDF members. A recent CENTCOM report stated that despite the intensive joint operations between the US-led Coalition and the SDF, “continued pressure is needed to prevent the group from rebuilding itself and be able to carry out new attacks against the United States and allies”. Between the mounting evidence of Turkey’s arming, funding, intelligence sharing, recruitment, and provision of safe havens for ISIS cells, operatives, and key leaders and hubs, it is clear that the reemergence of ISIS as a major threat is a present and emerging threat. True to form, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned the US ambassador to Turkey to demand an explanation for the visit and offer a condemnation, matching their Syrian counterparts as the Damascus government also condemned the visit.
The positive words of support and the surprise visit of US Chief of Staff General Miley are positive developments, but more meaningful military and political support is needed to allow the SDF and their US partners to focus on preventing a resurgence of ISIS. As long as Turkey’s support of the group remains, and the threats of a Turkish invasion of the AANES continue, the fight against ISIS cannot achieve its full potential. Nevertheless, the rare move by Gen. Miley is a strong signal of support that will surely boost the morale of those taking the fight against ISIS and defending the people who form the lifeblood of the AANES.