U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is replacing some of its regular troops in northern Syria with employees of private military companies (PMCs), Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday at a news conference in Moscow.
"The number of personnel of PMCs in Syria exceeds 4,000. It is notable that in the second half of June alone, 540 people had already arrived in the country, including 70 commanders and instructors. The transfer of mercenaries is carried out by car in groups of 12-16 people," she said.
According to Zakharova, the main tasks of the PMCs are training militants loyal to the U.S. and the protection of oil sites.
U.S. Syria policy, especially its military support for the People's Protection Units (YPG) terrorists, has been a cause of tension between Ankara and Washington. Ankara argues that one terrorist group cannot be used to fight another.
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK, which has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people in its 30-year terror campaign against Turkey. The U.S., however, while listing the PKK as a terrorist group, is maintaining its steadfast military support for the terrorist organization, by providing truckloads of military supplies and military training, under the pretext of fighting Daesh at the expense of losing its NATO ally.
In December, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Washington would pull its troops out of Syria, saying that Daesh has been defeated. The withdrawal decision was quickly interpreted as an intention to halt U.S. support for the YPG. Yet, a growing number of inconsistent statements from the White House indicate that the cooperation still remains an issue of concern. To reduce tensions, Turkey and the U.S. agreed on a road map in June 2018 foreseeing the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and installing joint Turkish-American patrols, which began in November. However, the process has been sluggish as the terrorist group was still present in the city despite the three-month timetable set for implementing the deal.
Ankara has been pointing out that it will not allow the YPG to strengthen its grip in Syria. Turkey is also prepared to launch an operation east of the Euphrates to eliminate the YPG. However, following the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria, Ankara decided to put the operation on hold for some time. While establishing a safe zone would eliminate some of Turkey's concerns, the presence of the YPG in Syria and its plan to form a quasi-state will continue to present a threat to the country.
Until now, Turkey and the U.S. have not discussed in detail where the safe zone would be and what would happen to the YPG terrorists. Turkish officials have been waiting for Washington to clarify what they meant by the 20-mile-deep safe zone. As Turkey has waited for the U.S. to take more concrete steps, Turkey carried out two cross-border operations west of the Euphrates River, Operation Euphrates Shield launched in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, to drive terrorist groups, including the YPG and Daesh, from its borders.
In March, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group dominated by the YPG, captured the last bastion of Daesh in Syria, although Daesh has remained active underground.
Trump backtracked on his decision to pull all 2,000 U.S. soldiers out of northeastern Syria and said that some 400 will stay to help stabilize the region, which straddles the border between Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. has since been working to secure more support from the 80 allies in the anti-Daesh coalition, including Germany, as U.S. forces begin to draw down