President Trump has approved a plan to directly arm Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, inflaming already strained ties with Turkey and putting the U.S. military a step closer to seizing a remaining Islamic State stronghold.
Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White said the president made the decision on Monday and described the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” For more than a year, the U.S. military has been advancing plans to capture Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the Islamic State’s de facto capital, as the final major step in its nearly three-year effort to defeat the militant group.
“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” White said in a statement. “We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the U.S. is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.”
The decision, which was first reported by NBC, is sure to enrage Turkey, which views the YPG as a threat and has rebuked the United States for supporting the group in Syria. The YPG, which dominates a diverse group of fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has emerged as the United States’ premier partner force against the Islamic State there.
Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.
The Turkish position has created a dilemma for U.S. military officials, who see no viable alternative force in Syria capable of and willing to mount an assault on Raqqa. Already, the YPG has received air support from the United States and, indirectly through Arab fighters, some U.S. weaponry.
Trump is expected to officially inform Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision next Tuesday, when Erdogan visits the White House.
Neither the Trump administration, nor the Barack Obama administration before it, had made any secret of its intention to give the Syrian Kurds a primary role in attempting to seize Raqqa. Defense officials have said repeatedly the Raqqa operation would require direct weapons shipments and upgraded equipment as local forces maneuver though minefields and other obstacles leading into Raqqa.
While Turkish officials have continued to complain publicly about a strategy they say enlists one terrorist group to fight another, they have privately acknowledged that the matter appeared to be decided.
Even so, Turkey has continued to lobby the Trump administration to change course ahead of Erdogan’s visit, dispatching to Washington top Turkish officials, including General Hulusi Akar, the military chief of staff, and Hakan Fidan, the intelligence chief. A Turkish delegation briefly met with President Trump on Monday, according to a report in the Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper.
To soften the blow, senior U.S. officials have been in near constant contact with their Turkish counterparts to assure them the Kurds will not be part of the force that enters Raqqa and will not dominate the establishment of a new local government. That force, U.S. officials have said, will be comprised of the Arab fighters who also form part of the SDF.
For its part, Turkey has charged that the political wing of the YPG has moved in behind the SDF forces who have taken territory from the Islamic State across northern Syria and forced out Arab and Turkmen populations. Their goal, Erdogan has said, is to create a Kurdish canton that can join with PKK separatists in Turkey.
Turkish forces moved into northern Syria late last year, ostensibly to fight against the Islamic State, but equally to ensure that YPG forces did not consolidate along Turkey’s southern border. Erdogan has more recently suggested he would send Turkish troops deeper into Syria, toward Raqqa, despite American plans to support a Kurdish-dominated offensive there.
Speaking earlier on Tuesday, Defense Sec. Jim Mattis suggested that the United States hoped to continue some sort of military partnership with Turkey in Syria.
[Syria: From civil war to multi-factional tinderbox]
“Our intent is to work with the Turks, alongside one another to take Raqqa down,” Mattis said during a news conference in Denmark. “We’re going to sort it out, we’ll figure out how to do it, but we’re all committed to it.”
Mattis declined to elaborate on the possible Turkish involvement. “NATO allies stick together,” he said. “That’s not to say we all walk into the room with same appreciation of the problem.”
Officials said Trump’s decision authorizes Mattis to move ahead with arming the Kurdish fighters, rather than setting a specific timeline for doing so. A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the new decision, said the weaponry included small arms, ammunition, heavy machine guns, and equipment to counter vehicle-borne bombs, a tool frequently used by the Islamic State.
The White House decision comes as Turkey ramps up its military operations against PKK and YPG fighters in Iraq and Syria. Last month, Turkish warplanes launched assaults on Kurdish fighters in both countries, killing more than a dozen people, and prompting a public condemnation from Washington. In the latest airstrikes, Turkey said that it had destroyed “PKK terrorist camps” in northern Iraq on Tuesday, according to Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu News Agency.
The attack on YPG partner forces was especially objectionable for American Special Operations forces, who are deployed in different areas of Syria alongside the Kurdish fighters. The SDF is now locked in a pitched battle with the Islamic State around the town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, a battle that U.S. officials say is a key stepping stone to the Raqqa offensive.
The U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State is just one of several parallel conflicts unfolding in Syria after more than six years of civil war.
By Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung
Source: Washington Post