In a major policy shift, the Pentagon announced Tuesday it would directly arm Syrian Kurdish fighters for the first time to help expedite the capture of the so-called ISIS capital of Raqqa – against the wishes of NATO ally Turkey, which considers the group terrorists.
President Trump made the decision Monday to ensure a “clear victory” over ISIS in Raqqa, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said in a statement announcing the move.
White said the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the Kurds, are the “only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future,” a position long shared by senior American military commanders.
While there is no mention in the statement of arming the Kurds – it only calls to “equip” them – U.S. defense officials told Fox News the plan includes supplying machine guns, small arms, ammunition, bulldozers and armored vehicles such as the M1117 Guardian.
“This will not be micromanaged like it was during the Obama administration,” said one official, referring to the prior administration’s close review of arms to other Syrian rebels.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called his Turkish counterpart, Fikri Işık, to discuss the issue while visiting Denmark for an anti-ISIS coalition meeting with allies.
Last month, Mattis hosted Isik at the Pentagon, but the two remained deadlocked on the issue.
Just days after the Turkish defense minister’s visit to Washington, nearly two-dozen Turkish jets bombed three areas in northeast Syria and Iraq, killing roughly 20 members of the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG.
Turkey has long considered the YPG an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey killing tens of thousands of civilians. Both Washington and Ankara consider the PKK a terrorist group, but the U.S. military has long said the YPG represent the best fighters on the ground in Syria against ISIS.
Acknowledging the long-held concerns of Turkey, the Pentagon statement said, “we are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey. 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.”
The U.S. military has based dozens of jets and other aircraft at a Turkish airbase near the border with Syria to conduct airstrikes against ISIS.
The Pentagon has long desired to have Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) compose the ideal assault force for the upcoming Raqqa operation over the Kurds. But after many months of attempts to recruit and train an Arab force, American officials acknowledged there weren’t enough of them, and they needed the Kurds to help capture Raqqa.
Trump is scheduled to meet his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Erdogan, at the White House next week.
In Denmark, Mattis was asked about the way forward with Turkey over the Raqqa issue.
“We’re going to sort it out,” he replied.