WASHINGTON — Two of the American military’s most in-demand combatant commands changed hands Wednesday in separate ceremonies at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., where U.S. Central and Special Operations Commands are headquartered.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter hailed 1980 West Point classmates Army Gens. Joseph Votel and Raymond “Tony” Thomas as “true pioneers” and “innovators” in their secretive world of American special operations, as they took command of CENTCOM and SOCOM, respectively.
Votel, 58, took the CENTCOM reins from retiring Army Gen. Lloyd Austin after leading SOCOM since June 2014. Thomas, 57, has most recently served as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, the headquarters that commands the military’s most elite counterterrorism organizations including the Navy’s SEAL Team Six and the Army’s Delta Force. Thomas followed Votel as the JSOC chief, as well.
Syrian militias armed by different parts of the U.S. war machine have begun to fight each other on the plains between the besieged city of Aleppo and the Turkish border, highlighting how little control U.S. intelligence officers and military planners have over the groups they have financed and trained in the bitter five-year-old civil war.
The fighting has intensified over the last two months, as CIA-armed units and Pentagon-armed ones have repeatedly shot at each other while maneuvering through contested territory on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, U.S. officials and rebel leaders have confirmed.
In mid-February, a CIA-armed militia called Fursan al Haq [armed with TOW missiles], or Knights of Righteousness, was run out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, by Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east.
“Any faction that attacks us, regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it,” Maj. Fares Bayoush, a leader of Fursan al Haq, said in an interview.
Rebel fighters described similar clashes in the town of Azaz, a key transit point for fighters and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and on March 3 in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud.
Head of the US Special Operations Command General Joseph Votel has described Russia as an “existential threat” to the United States, repeating accusations against Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
Russian officials are attempting to “create these frozen conflicts and create situations that are very, very difficult to resolve along their border,” he told Fox News.
That “does, could pose an existential threat,” the general added.
Votel also noted that Russia is “looking to challenge us wherever they can,” and “the intent is to create a situation where NATO can’t continue to thrive.”
He said he did not have insights into Russian President Vladimir Putin but he believes Putin sees the expansion of NATO “as a threat to him.”
He made the remarks several days after US Army General Mark Milley warned about Russia’s nuclear capability, saying it is the only country on earth that could destroy the United States.
“Russia is the only country on earth that contains a nuclear capability that could destroy the United States,” the general told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week.
“It’s an existential threat to the United States, so it has capability. Intent, I don’t know; but the activity of Russia since 2008 has been very, very aggressive,” he added.
It’s a new normal after an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov that some US General at the Pentagon or at NATO HQ in Brussels torpedoes the action with agressive remarks towards Russia.
Efforts to stabilise a Syrian ceasefire and restart stalled peace talks face an uphill struggle in Vienna as the external powers most deeply involved in the crisis try to narrow their differences.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, are co-chairing a meeting of the International Syria Support Group in an attempt to patch up an agreement reached in February on a cessation of hostilities and expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas.
As well as the UK, France, the EU and the Arab League, the 17-member group includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey – which are seeking the overthrow of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad – and Iran, his most important regional ally. Neither the Syrian government nor opposition are taking part.
Kerry spent the weekend in Jeddah in an apparent effort to persuade the Saudis to ensure that the anti-Assad rebels they support go along with the latest diplomatic effort, despite them having walked out of the last round of Geneva talks.
Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, said the focus was “humanitarian access and an implementable cessation of hostilities.”
Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy overseeing the indirect negotiations, is also in the Austrian capital seeking support for a new round to keep the diplomatic route open, despite the apparently unbridgeable gaps between the Syrian parties. He has said he wants talks to resume by the end of May.
De Mistura has estimated that more than 400,000 people have been killed in the five-year conflict, which has displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.
Arab and western officials involved said they do not expect significant achievements from the talks. The conventional wisdom regarding the current situation in Syria is that Russia is calling the shots and the US is working with it, despite the two countries’ ostensible disagreement about Assad’s fate.
“We are dealing with tactical steps, but there is nothing beyond them,” one senior Gulf diplomat told the Guardian.