Middle East News

Trump approves plan to arm Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in Syria, despite Turkey’s objections

US President Donald Trump approved a Pentagon plan to arm the Kurdish groups within the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Islamic State in Syria.

US President Donald Trump approved a Pentagon plan to arm Kurdish groups within the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Islamic State in Syria.

The Pentagon announced the decision on Tuesday, May 9.

Yesterday, the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria.

The SDF, partnered with enabling support from US and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.

We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey. We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally.

The US continues to prioritize our support for Arab elements of the SDF. Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs.

The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult, but will ultimately be yet another defeat for ISIS, and another step toward eliminating the ISIS threat to peace and security in the region and the world.

Pentagon spokesperson Dana W. White

According the the Associated Press, an unnamed US congressional aide said officials informed relevant members of Congress of the decision on Monday.

White did not say what kind of weaponry will be provided to Kurdish fighters, but other officials indicated in recent days that 120mm mortars, machine guns, ammunition and light armoured vehicles were possibilities, and that the US would not provide heavier artillery or surface-to-air missiles.

Citing an unnamed Pentagon source, the BBC said equipment would include ammunition, small arms, machine guns, heavy machine guns, construction equipment such as bulldozers and armoured vehicles.

Officials said the authorisation includes safeguards to reassure Turkey that US equipment will not be used by Kurds in Turkey, AP reported. Both AP and the BBC said equipment will only be used for specific missions and then the Kurds must return it to US control.

Until Tuesday’s announcement, the Pentagon repeatedly stuck to the position that it only supplied arms to the Syrian Arab Coalition element of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Senior SDF member Polat Can tweeted his approval of the US move.


Update May 10 In a statement, YPG spokesperson Rêdûr Xelîl said the decision to arm the Kurds ‘although it was a bit late’, expressed the confidence of the world in the YPG’s fight against all forms of terrorism.

“The People’s Protection Units stand in the front row in the fight against terrorism,” Xelîl said, adding that “from now on … the [YPG] will play a more influential, powerful and decisive role in the fight against terrorism.”

He said that the decision “will give a strong impetus to all democratic forces that fight terrorism” and that important, positive results will come quickly.

Turkish objections

Andrew Exum, Obama administration deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, says that the previous administration had long internal debates about how the apparently necessary arming the YPG could be detrimental to relations with Turkey. Writing in The Atlantic, Exum said Susan Rice told Mike Flynn “we would make the decision in the waning days of the Obama administration so that we could take the blame for the decision and Trump could start with a clean slate. Flynn, who was a paid agent of the Turkish government at the time, declined her offer.”

Turkey has long objected to its NATO ally supplying arms to the YPG and YPJ. It considers both groups – along with PYD, the political party to which they are connected – as Syrian offshoots of the banned Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US, EU and others have designated a terrorist group.

Update May 10 Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said: “Any initiative to support the PKK directly or indirectly is unacceptable for us,” the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Yıldırım said Turkey “cannot imagine” the US choosing “a terrorist organization” over its strategic partnership with Turkey. He urged the US to consider Turkey’s concerns, warning that if the decision is negative, the outcome is not [only] up to Turkey but will negatively affect the U.S. too.”

In a televised interview earlier on May 10, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said: “Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organizations and they are no different, apart from their names. Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey,” adding “Within the SDF, Arabs and the YPG should be distinguished and Arab forces should be the ones entering Raqqa.”

Çavuşoğlu said the issues would be raised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan when he meets Trump in Washington next week.

Later, Erdoǧan himself said he would raise the issue with Trump, and that it would be discussed at the May 25 NATO summit in Brussels.

“I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately … I will personally express our worries in a detailed way when we talk with President Trump on May 16,” Erdoǧan said.  “We want to believe that our allies would prefer be side by side with ourselves rather than with the terror groups.”

The New York Times reported on May 9 that Turkey was informed of Trump’s decision, citing to an unnamed American official. According to Daily Sabah, a Turkish delegation briefly met Trump in the Oval Office on Monday afternoon.

The high-level delegation is in Washington ahead of the impending visit of President Erdoǧan. On Monday the delegation met National Security Advisor General H. R. McMaster. On Tuesday, senior Erdoǧan adviser Ibrahim Kalin met the US State Department’s second highest official, Thomas Shannon. General Hulusi Akar, the Turkish military’s chief of staff, and Hakan Fidan, the intelligence chief, are also in Washington ahead of Erdoǧan’s visit.

Senior US officials including General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have met repeatedly with Turkish officials to work out an agreement on the way forward for the assault on Raqqa. Turkey has insisted that Kurds be excluded, but the US insists there is no alternative.

Earlier Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met Basat Ozturk, a senior Turkish defence official, during talks with defence ministers of the coalition against Islamic State in Denmark. Mattis said the discussions were useful and the two countries were working out their differences regarding Syrian Kurds.

“That’s not to say we all walk into the room with exactly the same appreciation of the problem or the path forward,” Mattis said. “Our intent is to work with the Turks, alongside one another, to take Raqqa down, and we’re going to sort it out and we’ll figure out how we’re going to do it.”

Tensions escalated last month after Turkey launched airstrikes on Kurdish bases in Syria and Iraq. The airstrikes were followed by cross-border clashes.

Rêdûr Xelîl, spokesperson for the Syrian YPG told Grasswire on April 26 that the US-led coalition must “give real guarantees” that its positions will not be hit again by Turkish airstrikes. Nasrin Abdullah, spokesperson for the YPJ, said: “If the coalition does not show a concrete reaction then we will withdraw our forces from Raqqa.”

Some equipment already received?

YAT special forces from the Kurdish YPG prepare to embark on SDF offensive to liberate Tabqa Dam, March 21, 2017. Image: @DefenseUnits/Twitter

On May 7, Military Times reported that Kurdish YAT special forces fighters already have US weaponry and equipment. A photograph of a fighter at the launch of the operation to liberate Tabqa on March 21 provided much of the basis for the report. Some of that equipment is seen in the photograph above.

Military Times speculated that this was supplied by either the CIA or the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which are not bound by the same restrictions imposed by Congress on the executive branch.

Some US equipment also appeared to have been given to the YAT by the Iraqi PUK Peshmerga’s Dizha Tiror special forces in 2016.


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