Syrian Kurdish groups expect U.S. support, will fight any Turkish advance

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian Kurdish militias and their allies expect continued U.S. support for their war against Islamic State in northern Syria and will fight Turkish forces if they advance towards Raqqa, a Kurdish leader said.

Top Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed spoke to Reuters from northeast Syria after returning from Washington where she pressed the new United States administration for political and military support.

She co-chairs the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance that includes the Kurdish YPG militia and has emerged as the main Syrian partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

“In order to eliminate Daesh, there will definitely be military aid,” she said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. Some U.S. officials also believed support could be increased, Ahmed said, describing her meetings as positive.

The SDF, dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized vast territory along the Syria-Turkey border. It also includes Arab and other groups in the north.

With air strikes and special ground forces from the U.S.-led coalition, the alliance is in the middle of a multiphased operation to encircle Raqqa city, Islamic State’s base of operations in Syria.

One of the Trump administration’s major decisions will be whether to provide weapons to the YPG despite Turkish objections. The U.S. says weapons provided to the SDF are so far limited to its Arab elements.

Ahmed said her meetings indicated the SDF would receive continued, if not more, support from the United States.

In addition to meeting U.S. State Department officials and members of Congress, she met with foreign policy advisors to the Trump campaign and she plans to head back to Washington “as soon as possible”.

TENSIONS

U.S. support for the SDF has created tensions with Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party that has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

The YPG forms the military backbone of self-governing regions that Kurdish groups have carved out in northern Syria since the onset of the war in 2011.

Turkey deployed its army in support of rebel groups in northern Syria in August, launching its own offensive, which the Kurds view as a hostile foreign intervention.

Turkey said this week that the final goal of its incursion into Syria was to cleanse a border region, including Raqqa, of both Islamic State and Kurdish YPG militia fighters.

“This is unacceptable. Turkey will not be allowed” near stable areas where the SDF has driven out jihadists, said Ahmed.

“This will mean heightened tensions,” she said. “If they attempt to, there will be clashes, of course.”

Northern Syria has become one of the most complicated battlefields of the multi-sided war, with Islamic State fighting there against the Syrian army, Turkish-backed rebels, and the SDF.

Islamic State is fighting hard to preserve its foothold in central and eastern Syria as it loses ground in Iraq.

“We definitely need more support,” said Ahmed, a member of the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD.

“We still don’t know where Daesh will go after the battle of Mosul,” she added. “There’s a risk they will come to Syria.”

EXCLUSION

Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies have made moves towards autonomy in the absence of any international deal for a political settlement to the nearly six-year war.

They have been repeatedly left out of U.N.-led peace talks, in line with Turkey’s wishes.

They approved a blueprint for a system of federal government in northern Syria in late December, reaffirming their plans for autonomy in areas they control. Still, Kurdish leaders say an independent state is not the goal.

The United States has voiced opposition to the federal plan.

Elections foreseen as part of the new federal system could take place in six months, Ahmed said, arguing that the model of regional autonomy in northern Syria should be the basis for ending the entire Syrian conflict.

During her meetings in Washington, Ahmed asked for U.S. support for these political ambitions, but has not received any definitive reaction.

“We’re not only thinking of the north,” Ahmed said. “We have a comprehensive Syrian project.”