US to Arm Syrian Kurdish Militia YPG to Capture ISIS Capital Raqqa despite Turkey’s Protests

Soldiers of the People's Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia stand guard next to a US eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicles, near al-Ghanamya village, al-Darbasiyah town at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, 29 April 2017. Photo: Youssef Rabie Youssef/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • US President Trump has decided to arm the Syrian Kurds in spite of Turkey’s opposition.
  • American plan is to empower the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, the major part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which also include ethnic Arabs, to conquer Raqqa, the capital of ISIS.
  • After its conquest, Raqqa is to be turned over to ‘local Arabs’, according to the US plan.
  • Turkey is hostile to the Syrian Kurds viewing their militia as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurds’ PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization.
  • US has sought to reassure Turkey saying it is committed to Turkey’s national security and interests.

US President Donald Trump has approved a plan to arm the YPG, the militia of the Syrian Kurds, which makes up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, in order to empower it to conquer Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS terrorist group.

The American plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG (“People’s Protection Units”) has been approved by Trump in spite of protests by Turkey, a key US ally in NATO, whose forces recently clashed with the YPG along the Turkish-Syrian border.

In the ongoing civil war in Syria, Turkey backs a rebel group that it has been sponsoring, the Free Syrian Army. It has repeatedly offered the United States to recognize and switch its support to the Free Syrian Army, rather than the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (which also include the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) fighters), but to no avail.

It has also accused the United States of supplying heavy weaponry to the Syrian Kurds, an accusation denied by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Turkey views the YPG and its political wing, PYD (“Democratic Union Party”) as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group blacklisted as a terrorist organization for using violence to fight for the independence of the Kurds living in Southeast Turkey.

The PKK has been waging a guerilla war and committing terrorist attacks against Turkey since 1984, in a conflict which has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Turkey has also been carrying out air strikes against alleged PKK and YPG positions in North Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain region, and in Northeast Syria.

In addition to Turkey, large ethnic Kurdish communities also live in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq enjoy an autonomy in the former of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, an entity the size of Scotland which might decide to seek formal independence.

Turkey’s government has had good relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan but not with the political and military organizations of the Kurds in Syria, which have been opposing its forces and allies in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

In addition to making up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but fight mostly against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG also appears to have established cooperation with Russia.

The Turkish government recently said it had completed “successfully” a major military operation in its war-torn neighbor Syria but that it would not be withdrawing its forces from there.

‘Only Force’ That Can Beat ISIS

US President Donald Trump approved a plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ahead of the expected Raqqa operation supported by the international anti-ISIS coalition.

“Yesterday [Monday], 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,” Dana White, the chief spokeswoman of the Pentagon, announced in a statement on Tuesday.

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

The US-led anti-ISIS international Coalition has repeatedly said it only provides its weapons to the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), i.e. the non-Kurdish part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

“We’ve provided small weapons [to the SAC], and this has been a very effective strategy in fighting ISIS. This force has liberated more than 8,000 square kilometers in the countryside that surrounds Raqqa,” said Coalition spokesman US Col. John Dorrian on May 1.

A convoy of US army troops and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia patrol near al-Ghanamya village, al-Darbasiyah town at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, 29 April 2017. Youssef Rabie Youssef/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

The US-led Coaliton announced 11 total strikes against ISIS near Raqqa or Tabqa on Monday.

Securing Tabqa would allow SDF forces to turn their attention to Raqqa, which has been held by ISIS since 2013.

“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,” the Pentagon statement added.

“The U.S. continues to prioritize our support for Arab elements of the SDF,” spokeswoman White stated, adding that Raqqah “and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs.”

During a White House press briefing on Tuesday, spokesperson Sean Spicer also said, as cited  that after the retaking of Raqqa, the city would be turned over to “local Arabs.”

US sources say, as cited by the BBC, they have received assurances from the Kurds that they will leave Raqqa to be governed by Syrian Arabs after the battle.

‘Reassuring’ Turkey

The Pentagon spokeswoman did acknowledge Turkey’s position seeking to reassure Ankara that US support for the YPG would not hurt Turkish interests.

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” Pentagon spokeswoman White declared.

“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,” she said.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan is scheduled to visit US President Trump in Washington on May 16.

The Pentagon did not immediately specify what types of support the US would begin to supply under the new authorities, but a US Defense official told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency it would include small arms, machine guns, ammunition, armored vehicles, trucks and engineering equipment.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Trump has prioritized the defeat of ISIS and the liberation of its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, since he came to office in January.

In a separate meeting on Tuesday in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US and Turkey would work together as operations to take the city continue.

“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,” Mattis said.

Commenting on the standoff over U.S. support for the YPG, Mattis said Turkey and the US are NATO allies and have been in useful discussions.

“That’s not to say we all walk into the room with exactly the same appreciation of the problem or the path forward,” he added.

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