During Thursday's Defense Department briefing, spokesperson Dana White was asked how the US intended to avoid fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when his supporters had avowed intentions to do battle with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Syrian, predominantly Kurdish militia.
"We continue to support SDF with respect to defeating [Daesh]," White replied. "Our goal is to ensure that our diplomats can negotiate from a position of strength [in the ongoing UN-backed peace talks]. It's our diplomats who will resolve what happens with respect to Syria."
But US diplomats have no direct involvement in the Syrian peace process. Under international law, a nation may use force on another nation's soil under two circumstances: approval from the UN Security Council (UNSC) or self-defense.
As the US fits neither, formally speaking, they aren't a side in the Syrian Civil War (though the US Department of Defense acknowledged at the end of last year that there were in fact thousands of US military personnel in the country) and so their diplomats have not been part of any recent peace talks, except in their capacity as representatives of the UNSC.
The reporter also asked White what US forces would do if Syrian government forces clashed with the SDF, without Daesh being involved. White did not answer the question. "[Daesh] is still there," she instead noted. "And our mission is to defeat [Daesh]."
In late January, Syrian government representatives sat down with a coalition of opposition groups, including Syrian Kurds, and the United Nations in Vienna for another round of Geneva Process talks, the UN's ongoing attempt to put an end to the civil war that has dragged on for almost seven years.
A few days later, Russia started their own peace summit in Sochi — one attended by Russia, Turkey and Syrian government officials, but few from the opposition. The US protested these talks, claiming that they undermined the legitimacy of the UN-organized ones in Vienna.
Russia has been the central backer of the Astana Peace Process, however, another set of talks done in conjunction with Iran and Turkey. Unlike the US, the Russian presence in Syria is not in violation of international law, as Moscow was invited to involve themselves by Assad.
On Wednesday, the US conducted an airstrike against pro-government Syrian militiamen in the economically crucial Middle Euphrates Valley, the informal border between government-controlled and SDF-controlled territory. The US justified the attack as a counter to an "unprovoked attack" launched by the militia against an SDF base elsewhere in the valley.
The strike, which left around 100 dead, was decried as "a war crime and a crime against humanity" by the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzya, also chastised the US for launching the air strike. "We were invited by the government of Syria to fight terrorists since 2015," he told reporters on Thursday. "The US was never invited to Syria. So who is the aggressor, tell me?"
SDF troops have also clashed with Turkey. Ankara is a US ally within NATO, but they consider the SDF to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish militant and political group designated as a terrorist organization by both the US and Turkey.
Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies are currently fighting the SDF in the Kurdish-held city of Afrin. US leaders have urged the Turks to back off, as the infighting endangered their campaign against Daesh.
"I think our main concern is that anything that disrupts everybody's focus on [Daesh] and eliminating the complete physical caliphate — and we're close, we're very close — something people couldn't have imagined a year ago — anything that disrupts us or takes our eye off that prize is not good," Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard, who commands the 2,000 US soldiers stationed in Syria, told the New York Times on Wednesday.
However, both Turkey and Russia have declared that all major Daesh holdings had been lost and the organization is no longer a territory-holding factor in the Syrian Civil War.