US-backed Syrian force launches operation to retake ISIS-held Syrian town near Turkish border

Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

A large Sunni Arab fighting force, backed by US special operations forces and fighter jets have launched an operation to recapture a key ISIS-held village in northern Syria 20 miles from the border with Turkey, a senior defense official tells Fox News.

The official said the US special ops troops would “not be engaged in direct combat” during the operation to reclaim the city of Manbij, to seal off a key access point for ISIS to move supplies and foreign fighters into Syria from Turkey.

18 US airstrikes in Manbij in the past 24 hours in Syria have destroyed ISIS headquarters buildings, weapons caches, training areas and six bridges, according to the daily strike report released by the US-led coalition Wednesday morning.  An unknown number of ISIS fighters were also killed according to officials familiar with the operation.

Over the weekend, an American commando was wounded in Syria north of the ISIS de-facto headquarters of Raqqa in a rocket or mortar attack, the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged a US service member had been hurt inside Syria.  In a separate ISIS attack near Irbil in neighboring Iraq, another US special operator was wounded last weekend as well, according to a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday both ISIS attacks against the US special operations troops did not involve “active combat.”

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to avoid calling the deployment of some 5,000 US troops to Iraq and nearly 300 to Syria as a “combat” deployment, stressing an advisory role to local forces away from the front lines.

The US-backed force numbers in the “thousands,” but the official refused to disclose the precise size of the force citing operational security.  The official said a small contingent of Kurdish fighters are also part of the ground force, but have pledged to return to their territory in Syria’s northeast following the clearing operation in Manbij, located west of the Euphrates River, historically Arab held territory.

The official acknowledged it was important to show NATO-ally Turkey that Arabs would take the lead in the operation.  Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG a terrorist group, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK in Iraq.  The United States and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, which has fought a guerrilla war against Turkey since the mid-80s killing tens of thousands of Turks. 

The YPG has been a key ally for the US military on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS.  In January, YPG fighters captured Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey.

The State Department says the YPG is a separate entity from the PKK, despite historical links between the two groups. 

Last week, photos by AFP of US special operations forces in Syria wearing patches of the YPG surfaced on the Internet, drawing outrage from Turkish officials. 

The YPG has roots in Marxist ideology and pledges allegiance to the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.  Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S. military said Friday that US forces wearing the YPG patches was “inappropriate” and that corrective action had been taken.

In February, the YPG opened its first foreign bureau in Moscow. 

Fewer foreign fighters joining ISIS, sr. military officer says

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News

There are now 200 foreign fighters per month joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, down from 1,500-2,000 a year ago, a senior military officer from Baghdad told reporters during a press briefing at the Pentagon when asked by Fox News.

US Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the US-led coalition’s deputy commander for operations and intelligence said that recent airstrikes against ISIS cash storage facilities have "fractured" ISIS.   Gersten estimates strikes against ISIS cash sites have been in the "tens" and have destroyed between $300 and 800 million dollars away from ISIS. 

In the strike which killed ISIS' finance emir last month, believed to be the second in command of ISIS, MG Gersten said $150 million was destroyed at his house.  Using a tactic from the Israelis, Gersten said air bursts were deployed to scare the civilians to flee the house.  The "knock operation" as this tactic is called has been used to minimalize civilians casualties, Gersten said.

When asked how many ISIS fighters have been killed on the battlefield, Maj. Gen. Gersten replied, “not enough.”  He did not provide an estimate on the overall size of ISIS.

Following President Obama's announcement Monday that 250 more US troops would be going to Syria, 450 more troops ordered to the region over the past two weeks, MG Gersten said the US military would deploy an advanced rocket system to Turkey which uses GPS guidance to destroy targets up to 180 miles away, in another sign of incremental escalation in the war against ISIS.  

Gersten would not say where the HIMARS system, the name for the rocket system, will be deployed in Turkey citing operational security. 

Russia ignores Obama plea to maintain Syria ceasefire, shifts forces north for Aleppo offensive, officials

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News

Despite a call from President Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday urging him to maintain a fragile cease-fire in Syria, Russia has shown no signs of complying.  Russia continues to ignore repeated requests from the administration to stop backing the Syrian regime after five-years of civil war that have killed a quarter of a million people.

A U.S. defense official tells Fox News Russian-backed Syrian forces have shifted the bulk of their fire power, including rocket propelled artillery north to areas outside Aleppo, where a new offensive to recapture Syria’s largest city is poised to take place in the near future.

“They have shifted everything from Palmyra up north,” the official told Fox News.

Russian-backed Syrian forces recently recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from ISIS in central Syria.  Russian and Syrian jets have also been striking rebel held towns around Damascus and Homs, despite a cease-fire agreement agreed to in late November.   The cease-fire does not apply to ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Earlier this week, the main Syrian opposition group walked out of peace talks held in Geneva, brokered by the United States and Russia.  UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters Monday that the humanitarian situation around Aleppo had deteriorated, where fighting has resumed in the past few days.

The State Department said Monday the cease-fire in Syria had been largely successful, despite reports of resumed Russian and Syrian bombing of rebel held areas.

“More Syrian people are living better lives as a result of the cessation than they were before,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that President Obama did not raise the issue of Russia’s provocative dangerous close range ‘flybys’ of a US Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea and later conduced an “unsafe” barrel roll over a US Air Force spy plane also in the Baltic. 

The incidents “while provocative and concerning, are not particularly unusual,” said Earnest

Wall Street Journal first to report movement of artillery to northern Syria. 

Krauthammer: US should amp up support of Kurds in Iraq and Syria

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer told viewers on "Special Report" that the US should amp up its support of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria as the strategy against Islamic militants founder. 
 
Fox obtained documents that show aides to the DIA Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart struck the word "quagmire" from his draft testimony about Iraq.
 
Krauthammer faults the Obama administration for not vigorously supporting the groups that have made headways in countering ISIS  noting the recent victory in which the Kurds captured Tal Abyad, Syria from the militants,  "Our strategy ought to be to arm, supply and support with heavy air support the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds and there's also the front of the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria which is advancing as well."
 
The White House has been relying on the Iraqi government to unify sectarian factions in forming a fighting army, however, progress has been non-existent. 
 
"These are people we should be supporting but not the Iraqi government and its forces in the field who don't fight and who are not our friend," said Krauthammer. 
 

Lawmakers Disagree over Obama’s Military Force Request Against ISIS

By Ford Fischer, Special Report College Associate 

On Wednesday, President Obama requested congressional approval for use of military force in a three-year military campaign against ISIS in the Middle East.

This is the first time Mr. Obama has requested congressional approval for military action, despite having conducted airstrikes in at least seven countries. In his request, he attempts to mitigate the concerns of war-averse citizens.  

“My administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president said.

Leaders in both parties remain skeptical. On the whole, Democrats seem to feel that the request includes too few restrictions on the possibility of perpetual war. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California expressed concerns about the plan, specifically boots on the ground.

Mr. Obama attempted to clarify, “The resolution is not the authorization of another ground war.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner described the plan as too limiting to the president’s ability to lead the military into war. Restrictions on the authorization Mr. Obama is requesting could also affect his successor. "I believe that if we are going to authorize the use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we are in,” Speaker Boehner said. "As you've heard me say over the last number of months, I am not sure that the strategy that has been outlined will accomplish the mission the president says he wants to accomplish.”

While expressing that the US needs to destroy the Islamic State, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky expressed concern that America’s foreign policy leaders, specifically Hillary Clinton, may have caused the turmoil leading us back into the region. “I think we have to do something about ISIS but you know why we’re doing something and why we have to be there again?” He said that America’s support for the war in Libya, which he referred to as “Hillary’s war,” helped destabilize the region.

Additionally, he adds that the US supporting Islamic rebels in Syria’s civil war has also had unintended consequences. “We and our allies sent 600 tons of weapons into that civil war,” Paul said. “Most of those weapons wound up in the hands of ISIS.”

President Obama’s new plan emphasizes the armament of local forces. Ensuring that weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands will likely become a primary point of concern over the next few years if Congress approves.

Special Report Grapevine: Follow Your Nose

No Girls Allowed: Iceland is announcing a United Nations conference on women and gender equality that will not invite any women.  The all-male session is being dubbed the barbershop conference - by the country's foreign affairs minister, who touts it as a one-of-a-kind meeting.
 
"We want to bring men and boys to the table on gender equality in a positive way."
 
The event is part of a global campaign to get 100,000d men and boys involved in the issue. Critics say it will lead to a one-sided conversation. 
 
Think Again: If you are looking for a vacation spot off the beaten path why not give Syria a try? Believe it or not Bloomberg reports the country torn apart by a civil war and invaded by ruthless ISIS terrorists is counting on tourism for a major economic shot in the arm. The US government is not high on the idea.
 
"The Department of State continues to warn US citizens against travel to Syria. No part of Syria should be considered safe from violence." 
 
Follow Your Nose: Finally, the Grapevine is all for personal hygiene, but there are some lifestyles where it just gets in the way. Oregon police officers were able to capture a suspect who had  eluded them in a high speed chase thanks to his cologne. After giving the law the slip Charles Agosto ditched his car and fled on foot. The Albany Democrat-Herald reports that's when officers caught a strong scent of cologne in the darkness that led them to Agosto hiding in shrubbery. The scented perp was jailed on a plethora of charges -- including probation violation and criminal trespass. He told the officers he regretted using the cologne before he left his house.
 

Female Pilot Leads Airstrikes Against ISIS

FOX News can confirm that the first female pilot for the UAE served as the team leader in the U.S. led coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

Major Mariam Al Mansouri is the first woman to join the Emirati Air Force—a dream she has held since she was a teenager.  She graduated from the academy in 2008 and now serves as a squadron commander, piloting F-16 fighter jets.

Al Mansouri, 35, is the first woman from an Arab nation to fly a mission-- dropping bombs on Sunni terrorists.  

The United States and five Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, launched a series of airstrikes against ISIS targets inside Syria. 

 

U.S. Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

Senator Inhofe "one size fits all" approach will not work in Iraq/Syria

Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) criticized the White House strategy in Iraq and Syria by raising publicly, a point that is being discussed privately, and widely in military and intelligence circles.

Inhofe said the administration’s position that they will employ the same strategy used in Yemen and Somalia, does not acknowledge the clear differences in the adversary, ISIS, and conditions on the ground.

Yemen is a government that has given tacit approval to the US drone campaign and Somalia lacks a coherent government to object to the campaign. Inhofe says this cookie cutter approach by the President does not recognize that ISIS holds more territory (size of Great Britain), has more money, has 10-thousands of fighters, and in both Iraq and Syria there are functioning governments, and in Syria an air defense system.

While the targeted killing campaign has taken out leadership in Yemen and Somalia, both groups have found ways to replace.  By example, al-Shabaab replaced Godane who was killed in an airstrike earlier this  month – within days.

Steven Sotloff

A video purporting to show the beheading of 31 year old US journalist Steven Sotloff has been released online by ISIS. The video titled "A Second Message to America," also threatens the life of British captive David Haines.

Sotloff was kidnapped in 2013 near Aleppo after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, The National Interest, Media Line, World Affairs, and Foreign Policy Magazine. 

Sotloff grew up in South Florida and attended the University of Central Florida with a major in journalism. 

Earlier this year a video was released by the terrorist organization ISIS titled "A Message to America," showing the brutal murder by beheading of US journalist James Foley. In the video ISIS delivers a message to President Obama, stating the president's next move would decide Sotloff's fate. Following the video the United States increased airstrikes against ISIS. 

The new video features Sotloff speaking into the camera, saying he is "paying the price" for U.S. intervention. It is important to note that as a prisoner his words may very well have been scripted. 

A spokesperson for the Sotloff family released a statement about the video and stated the family is "grieving privately."

Our hearts and our prayers go out his family and friends at this time. We are deeply saddened by this terrible news. 

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