Dana White, the Pentagon’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement Monday that the Trump administration has decided to arm Syria’s Kurdish fighters because it was “necessary” for recapturing the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
The decision was made in the face of fierce opposition from Turkey, a NATO ally which regards the Syrian Kurds as terrorists.
Turkey has been worried that a better-armed Kurdish militia — known as the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) – would be in a stronger position to aid the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish group agitating for greater Kurdish autonomy in eastern Turkey. The PKK, from 1982 to 2011, had conducted a bloody war against the Turkish state, killing more than 40,000 Turks. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and representatives of the PKK agreed to end the conflict, and a Kurdish party has been making gains in parliamentary elections.
In the last three years, however, the PKK attacks inside Turkey have resumed, although not with the same intensity as in the earlier conflict. Turkey became worried that the growing autonomy of the Syria Kurds – the result of the disintegration of Syria – would spill into Turkey, and embolden the PKK to renew its campaign for greater Turkish autonomy. It was this concern which had led Turkey to follow policies which resulted in the strengthening of ISIS, such as allowing the free flow of foreign fighters into Syria to join ISIS ranks, and buying oil from ISIS-controlled oil fields.
Turkey has viewed ISIS as a potent force against the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime – both regarded by the Turks as Turkey’s main enemies.
CNN reports that White said that President Trump’s authorization gives the Pentagon the go-ahead to “equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS” in Raqqa.
The U.S. military has concluded that the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a multi-ethnic armed militia led by the Kurdish YPG, is the most effective and battle-tested force in the fight against ISIS in north-east Syria.
White said the SDF is “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
Senior Pentagon officials said that the arms given to the SDF will include 120mm mortars, machines guns, ammunition, and light armored vehicles.
These officials stressed that the United States will not provide the SDF with artillery or surface-to-air missiles.
The Obama administration also wanted to arm the Kurds, but concluded that the relationship with Turkey was more important than gaining short-term battlefield advantages. Moreover, Turkey agreed to increase its military attacks against ISIS in exchange for the U.S. abstention from arming the Kurds. At least part of the Pentagon’s reason for going ahead with arming the Kurds was the realization the Turkey was dragging its feet in the fight against ISIS – while continuing to use Turkish airpower and artillery attacks against the Kurds.
CNN notes that senior U.S. officials, among them Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, have been holding talks with Turkish officials to try to work out an arrangement which would allow the strengthening of the SDF ahead of the Raqqa assault, but which would be acceptable to Ankara.
The Turks, however, would not budge — insisting that the Syrian Kurds should be excluded altogether from the Raqqa operation. U.S.military leaders concluded that without the YPG, the SDF would not be an effective fighting force.
White, in her statement, acknowledged the Turkish worries by emphasizing that the United States prioritizes the support for the Arab elements of the SDF.
“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” she said. “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.”
Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNNthat Trump’s Monday authorization includes safeguards meant to reassure Turkey that the U.S. weaponry and equipment sent to the SDF will not be used by the SDF’s Kurdish elements for fighting inside Turkey. People with knowledge of the details say the administration aims to restrict the distribution and use of U.S.-supplied weaponry by permitting its use for specific battlefield missions, and then requiring the Kurds to return the weapons to U.S. control.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will visit the White House next week.
The United States has been growing impatient with Turkey’s continued attacks on the Syrian Kurds, attacks which weaken the anti-ISIS forces in the region. Last month the Turkish military launched airstrikes and artillery barrages against Kurdish bases in Syria and Iraq, killing at least ninety YPG fighters and injuring many more.
This article is published courtesy of Homeland Security News Wire.