Commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast secretly visits Syria
NORTHERN SYRIA — On a secret trip to Syria, the new commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Saturday he felt a moral obligation to enter a war zone to check on his troops and make an assessment of progress in organizing Arab and Kurdish fighters for what has been a slow campaign to push the Islamic State out of Syria.
“I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel said in an interview as dusk fell on the remote outpost where he had arrived 11 hours earlier. “So it’s imperative for me to come and see what they’re dealing with — to share the risk they are dealing with.”
Votel, who has headed U.S. Central Command for seven weeks, became the highest-ranking American military officer known to have entered Syria since the United States began its campaign to counter the Islamic State in 2014. The circumstance was exceptional because the United States has no combat units in Syria, no diplomatic relations with Syria and for much of the past two years has enveloped much of its Syria military mission in secrecy.
Votel said he brought reporters with him because, “We don’t have anything to hide. I don’t want people guessing about what we’re doing here. The American people should have the right to see what we’re doing here.”
Meanwhile, a suspected U.S.-led coalition airstrike on a northern Syrian village was blamed for killing seven members of the same family.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the Syria conflict through local observers, said the planes responsible for the Arshaf strikes were seen to cross into Syrian airspace from Turkey.
At least 60,000 people have died from torture and other maltreatment in Syrian jails since a revolt against President Bashar Assad broke out five years ago, the Observatory said, quoting sources in the country’s security forces.
The group reported that the figure came from reliable sources, primarily in the air force intelligence and state security agencies and at the Sednaya prison near Damascus.
The victims died as a direct result of torture or from a lack of food and medicine in the jails, the group said.