WASHINGTON / HASAKAH, SYRIA —
The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria concluded a training course for 500 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces this week. The goal, the SDF says, is to prepare them to protect their borders after the removal of IS in northern Syria.
Without giving a timetable, Kurdish commanders at the training camp in the northern Syrian city of Hasakah told VOA the new graduates will join a 30,000-strong border army that the coalition announced it would form last week.
“All borders of Syria should be protected by the people of Syria, and this force takes on itself that responsibility,” Kani Ahmed, a Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told VOA.
While Kurdish commanders say the goal is to prepare them to protect their borders after the removal of IS in northern Syria, the Pentagon says the force will be "internally focused" on stability to prevent "freedom of movement" by remnants of the IS terror group
"These local security forces are aimed at preventing the potential outflow of fleeing ISIS terrorists as their physical presence in Syria nears its end and, pending a longer-term settlement of the civil war in Syria, to ensure that ISIS cannot escape or return," Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Commander Ahmed said this week’s training was the second in preparing new fighters. Another group of 500 men received their training in late December.
Ahmed added the men will be deployed to the northern Syrian towns of Kobani, Tal Abyad and Suluk along the border with Turkey.
“The force consists of all Syrian components, including Kurds, Arabs and Chaldeans,” he told VOA. “Our objective is to protect Syrian borders wherever we can reach.”
However, a U.S. military official told VOA Tuesday that calling these fighters a "border force" is a misrepresentation. He said some border security activities are included in the training because they are protecting areas that are near the border, but that their primary purpose is localized security for their area, not border defense.
Turkey considers the Kurdish-led YPG, the backbone of the SDF, a terrorist organization. Turkey alleges the group is an extension of the Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and the EU.
But Washington rejects Turkey’s claims and considers the YPG a key ally in fighting IS.
A VOA reporter who visited the schoolyard training site for the new border force in southern Hasakah this week was told by Kurdish commanders that the training was supervised by the U.S.-led coalition.
WATCH: Graduation Ceremony Takes Place in Hasakah
Izet Omer, one of the graduates of a training program in the city of Kobani, told VOA his training was directed by American commanders stationed in Syria as a part of coalition’s anti-IS operation.
"We are very happy that America is supporting us, and we hope they increase this type of support,” Omer said, as he was celebrating his graduation.
Another graduate, Adhem Heyder, told VOA that the training included instructions on how to entrench along border points and prevent cross-border infiltration.
“They instructed us on how to dig trenches and how to expel the enemy from a trench,” Heyder said. “They also trained us on how to move in convoys along the border and how to retreat with minimum loss when the enemy attacks.”
But, a senior administration official dismissed talk that the U.S. had ever considered establishing a force “that would have a presence on the Syria-Turkey border,” writing it off as baseless allegations.
“There was never such a plan that had any policy approval, and in fact [it] wasn’t even considered here in [Washington], D.C. at a policy level,” a senior U.S. administration official told VOA Tuesday.
“There may have been some ‘blue sky’ type thinking by military planners at a tactical level based on the mission parameters that they’ve had, but that was never put forward as a policy option, never considered by the interagency decision makers here,” he said.
Last week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “strangle” the U.S.-backed force “before it’s even born.”
In an effort to calm tensions with Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last Wednesday, said the U.S. had no intention of building a border force, adding that the issue was "misportrayed."
“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed. Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” he said while traveling back to Washington after hosting a meeting on North Korea in Canada. “I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression. That is not what we’re doing.”
But U.S. assurance has failed to convince Turkey, which along with its allied members of the Free Syrian Army, continues its offensive in Afrin.
VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb and VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.