What Is France Doing in Syria? New U.S. Military Photos May Have Shown Too Much

New photos released by the U.S. military appeared to show a greater French role in Syria than previously thought—but the images were quickly pulled from social media.

The official Twitter account for the Special Ops Joint Task Force involved in the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria shared pictures Wednesday from the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor featuring U.S. Marines loading a mortar and a French light armored vehicle in the background. While France has been involved in the U.S.-led fight against the jihadis since 2014, this was the first evidence of the country deploying troops in this part of Syria.

Even though images were soon removed from the account, several users caught them—including broadcaster France 24, which reported on it the following day.

"Today we have the confirmation of the direct involvement of the French special forces on this region," French journalist and analyst Wassim Nasr told the official outlet, noting that the photo was taken last month and that the first such convoy was spotted in the region in June.

FranceInSyria2 A zoom-in of a photo shared September 12 by the official U.S. Special Operations Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account and reportedly taken in August shows U.S. Marines loading a mortar and a French Nexter Aravis armored personnel carrier in the background. U.S. Special Ops Task Force - OIR/Social Media

FranceinSyria3 A zoom-in of a photo shared September 12 by the official U.S. Special Operations Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve Twitter account and reportedly taken in August shows U.S. Marines loading a mortar and a French Nexter Aravis armored personnel carrier in the background. U.S. Special Ops Task Force - OIR/Social Media

The vehicle in question is a Nexter Aravis, an infantry mobility vehicle built by France and used only by its forces and those of Saudi Arabia, which—despite an alleged proposal by President Donald Trump—were not known to have a direct presence in Syria. French flag-bearing Aravis vehicles were previously spotted in other areas of Syria under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—a mostly Kurdish alliance of local fighters—such as the city of Manbij, but Wednesday's photo suggests French troops were on the frontlines of a new push to defeat ISIS once and for all.

In May, the Syrian Democratic Forces launched Operation Roundup, a campaign to clear out one of the last pockets of ISIS influence in the country and, in the months since, the U.S.-led mission has advanced in parts of the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Wednesday's photo was said to have been taken near the village of Al-Baghouz, near the Iraqi border, where other coalition assets are deployed.

The same day the U.S. Special Ops accounts shared the photo, the U.S.-led coalition announced the beginning of the final phase of the Operation Roundup, focusing on Hajin and other ISIS-held villages in the shrinking enclave of jihadi influence. Also on Wednesday, the Syrian military launched a parallel push against the final ISIS pockets in the provinces of Al-Sweida and Homs.

While both involved in the battle against ISIS, the U.S. and France have refused to coordinate with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both powers have accused him of committing human rights abuses throughout his seven-year war, which was sparked by a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising supported by the West, Turkey and Sunni Muslim monarchies. With Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian leader has regained control over the majority of lost territory while calling for Western and Turkish forces to leave the country immediately.

RTS20LDV A map shows areas of control in Syria as of August 5. While both the Syrian military—backed by Russia and Iran—and the Syrian Democratic Forces—supported by a U.S.-led coalition—take on ISIS, world powers are split over an upcoming military offensive against Islamist rebel-held Idlib in the northwest. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

Nevertheless, the U.S. and France have pressed on with their involvement, warning the Syrian government not to pursue an upcoming operation to retake the northwestern province of Idlib, the only remaining region under the control of an Islamist-led insurgency. Turkey, which supports the insurgent and formerly CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, has attempted to establish a ceasefire deal with Russia and Iran as it tries to separate rebels from hardcore jihadis, such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the province of some three million people.

The U.S. suggested that the Syrian military may use chemical weapons in the offensive and has already begun discussions with France and the U.K. to plan strikes should they be employed, though recent statements indicated they may intervene against any attack on Idlib. Trump has twice ordered such military action against the Syrian government in response to alleged instances of poison gas use in the past, the most recent of which included French and U.K. support. Syria has denied being involved in reported chemical attacks and, along with its allies—accused the West and local militants of plotting to stage such an event to prompt an intervention.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has called for calm in the region. The organization has also warned against attacking Idlib due to the humanitarian crisis that would ensue but has also acknowledged the plight of militant activity in the province. As of Thursday, Syrian air raids and militant shelling of government-held towns as Russia, Iran and Turkey struggled to reach an agreement on the fate of Idlib.

This article has been edited to reflect that the troops featured are members of the U.S. Marine Corps, not the Army as originally reported.

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