US to arm Syrian Kurds despite Turkey’s refusal

A group of Syrian Kurdish Fighters holding the flag of Kurdistan. (Internet)

The United States on Tuesday announced it would supply arms and military equipment to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a move likely to anger key ally Turkey which considers the Kurdish forces to be terrorists, Agence-France Presse reported.

The weapons will go to the fighters ahead of an upcoming offensive to recapture Raqa, the last major bastion for ISIS in Syria and the capital of their supposed “caliphate.”

President Donald Trump on Monday “authorised the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqa,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.

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

The equipment will include small arms, ammunition, machine guns, armoured vehicles and engineering plant such as bulldozers, a defence official told AFP.

The Kurdish elements of the SDF are from the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and they have been the main faction fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria.

But Turkey says the YPG is linked to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists inside Turkey, who have waged an insurgency since 1984 that has killed more than 40,000 people. Turkish war planes carried out strikes on YPG forces in Syria last month and also hit Kurdish positions in neighbouring Iraq, which Ankara described as “terrorist havens”.

Tuesday’s announcement comes ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington next week to meet Trump. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said it was unclear how Washington can allay Turkey’s concerns. He noted that the US government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center previously labelled the YPG as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, but scrapped that description once the US began working with them in late-2014.

“There really cannot be any ignoring the fact that the YPG is the official affiliate of a terrorist organisation that Turkey has been fighting for over 30 years,” Lister told AFP. “We have many reasons to be very frustrated with the Turks, but Ankara has a justified reason for being infuriated by our support for the YPG.”

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, who arrived in Vilnius late Tuesday as part of a Europe trip, earlier attended a summit in Copenhagen for senior leaders from the top 15 countries in the anti-ISIS coalition, including Turkey.

Mattis gave a positive assessment of the role Turkey will play. “Our intent is to work with the Turks, alongside one another to take Raqa down,” Mattis said.

Spokeswoman White later said Mattis had spoken with Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik and reassured him of US commitment to protecting its NATO ally.

“Equipment provided to the SDF will be limited, mission specific, and metered out incrementally as objectives are reached,” White said, adding that the US foresees Raqa eventually being governed by Arabs, not Kurds.

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