Pentagon to arm Syrian Kurds for Raqqa fight
By COREY DICKSTEIN AND TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 9, 2017
WASHINGTON — The United States will directly supply military gear to the Syrian Kurdish militia that it has long supported in the fight against the Islamic State despite Turkish objections, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
President Donald Trump on Monday authorized the Pentagon to provide the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, known as the YPG, “necessary” equipment to bolster its coming fight to remove ISIS from Raqqa, the terrorist group’s de facto capital in Syria, said Dana W. White, a Pentagon spokeswoman. The YPG makes up roughly half of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the proxy ground force that the United States has supported with airstrikes and special operations advisers against ISIS in Syria since 2015.
“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,” White said in a prepared statement.
White’s statement confirmed the United States will allow the Syrian Democratic Forces to lead the campaign to recapture Raqqa. Turkey, a NATO ally, has long criticized American support for the YPG and wants its own troops and the Syrian militia that it supports to be involved in the assault on Raqqa. Turkey considers the YPG an armed wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group. Top American military leaders have said consistently that they have seen no evidence that the YPG is a threat to Turkey.
Last month, Turkey conducted airstrikes on Kurdish military posts in Syria and Iraq, killing some 20 YPG fighters and further straining tensions between the NATO allies. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet next week with Trump at the White House.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him in Jerusalem that dialogue between the United States and Turkey has focused on Syria after ISIS is defeated there. He said the conversation about which forces fight to retake Raqqa has been less important.
Dunford also said the large number of Arabs who are now part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, not the Kurdish forces, would retake Raqqa.
“It’s less about what forces actually seize Raqqa,” Dunford said. “… I’ve tried to elevate it to the strategic level and say, ‘Look let’s come to an agreement on what the facts on the ground in Syria should be that meet our mutual interests in security requirements – let’s make sure that as we conduct operations in Raqqa and down into the Euphrates River valley to defeat ISIS that we are at the same time addressing Turkey’s concerns, primarily their border concerns and the ability of the PKK to operate freely in northern Iraq and northern Syria.’”
In Denmark, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that he had positive discussions with Turkey, including about the United States’ support for the YPG.
“That’s not to say we all walk into the room with exactly the same appreciation of the problem or the path forward,” Mattis told reporters, according to The Associated Press. “We’re going to sort it out. We’ll figure out how we’re going to do it.”
The Pentagon has provided military gear, such as AK-47s and ammunition, to the Syrian Arab Coalition, the non-Kurdish portion of the Syrian Democratic Forces, since 2016. It has also provided armored vehicles to the Syrian Arab Coalition.
The new equipment that the Pentagon will provide to the Syrian Kurds will be similar, said Eric Pahon, another Pentagon spokesman. In addition to armored vehicles, rifles, machine guns and ammunition, the Pentagon likely will provide personal protective equipment including helmets and ballistic vests.
For now, at least, it does not appear the equipment will include heavy weaponry such as artillery or shoulder-fired missiles, Pahon said. But he added the equipment will be adjusted as needs arise on the battlefield.
“We are metering out all equipment tied to a specific military objection,” Pahon said. “And we’re also doing everything we possibly can to address [Turkey’s] security concerns.”
It was not clear Tuesday when the Pentagon would begin providing the gear to the Kurds. Pahon said at least some of the equipment could be provided very soon.
The Syrian Democratic Forces has encircled about three-fourths of Raqqa and could begin its assault within weeks, he said.
The Pentagon anticipates a long, bloody fight for the Syrian city similar to the ongoing, seven-month battle for Mosul in Iraq.
“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,” White said.
This frame grab from a video provided by Qasioun a Syrian opposition media outlet, shows U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters stationed near Ein Issa, north of Raqqa, Syria. Backed by U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish-led Syrian fighters clashed on Monday with Islamic State militants north of the city of Raqqa in Syria as they pushed ahead in their offensive aiming to liberate the city that has been the de facto capital of the extremist group since 2014.
QASIOUN A SYRIAN OPPOSITION MEDIA OUTLET, VIA AP