Deeper US involvement in Syria, closer alliance with Kurds

US military support is designed to boost the firepower of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against ISIS.

Cosying up. A US officer speaking with a fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) near the north-eastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik. (AFP)

2017/05/14 Issue: 106 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington- Ending years of a hands-off approach, the United States is stepping up its involvement in the deadly conflict in Syria by supply­ing heavy weapons to Syrian Kurds for an offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The move is provoking a crisis in relations with NATO ally Turkey just days before its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is to meet with US President Donald Trump in Wash­ington.

US military support, which in­cludes heavy machine guns, mor­tars, anti-tank weapons and ar­moured vehicles, is designed to boost the firepower of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in Syria seen by Washington as a close ally in the fight against ISIS.

Trump has authorised the Depart­ment of Defence “to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS” in Raqqa, seat of the jihadists’ self-styled caliphate, the Pentagon said. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a Kurdish-Arab fighting force that in­cludes the YPG.

Since taking office nearly four months ago, Trump has demon­strated a willingness to use military power in the Middle East, ordering a missile attack on a Syrian airbase last month.

Arming the Kurds signals a deeper US involvement in the con­flict. Erdogan, who is to meet with Trump on May 16, was incensed by the move, which Ankara says would strengthen a dangerous enemy. It views the YPG as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the United States.

“It is unthinkable to have a deci­sion in the Middle East taken with­out Turkey,” Erdogan said the day after Trump’s order to the Penta­gon. “If somebody makes a decision without asking Turkey’s opinion, they will pay a heavy price,” Turk­ish media quoted Erdogan as say­ing. On May 10, Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara that “we want to believe that our allies will side with us, not with a terrorist or­ganisation.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called Trump’s move “unacceptable” and Defence Minister Fikri Isik spoke of a “crisis” between his country and the United States. Ozturk Yilmaz, a leading member of Turkey’s opposition, called on Erdogan to cancel his trip to Wash­ington. He said Ankara should not expect the YPG to return the US weapons once ISIS was defeated.

Washington tried to calm the situation while making it clear the Trump administration had no in­tention of backing down. “We want to reassure the people and the gov­ernment of Turkey that the United States is committed to preventing additional security risks and pro­tecting our NATO ally,” Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer said. He added that the SDF was “the only force on the ground that can suc­cessfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

US Defence Secretary James Mat­tis also offered reassurances to Turkey. The United States agreed “100% with Turkey’s concerns about PKK,” Mattis said after meeting with Yildirim in London. Reports said Washington offered increased intel­ligence sharing to boost Turkey’s fight against the PKK.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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