In Blow to U.S.-Turkey Ties, Trump Administration Approves Plan to Arm Syrian Kurds Against Islamic State

Troops from Kurdish militia units known as the YPG stand guard next to U.S. fighting vehicles near the Syrian-Turkish border.  (Youssef Rabie/European Pressphoto Agency)
Troops from Kurdish militia units known as the YPG stand guard next to U.S. fighting vehicles near the Syrian-Turkish border. (Youssef Rabie/European Pressphoto Agency)

President Trump has approved a plan to directly arm Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, inflaming already strained ties with Turkey and putting the U.S. military a step closer to seizing a remaining Islamic State stronghold.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said the president made the decision Monday, describing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a diverse group dominated by Kurdish fighters, as “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” For more than a year, the U.S. military has been advancing plans to capture Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the Islamic State’s de facto capital, as the final major step in its nearly three-year effort to defeat the militant group.

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” White said in a statement. “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 decision, which was first reported by NBC, is sure to enrage Turkey, which views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the largest share of the SDF, as an existential threat. Ankara has repeatedly rebuked the United States for supporting the YPG, which has emerged as the Pentagon’s premier partner force against the Islamic State in Syria.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.

The Turkish position has created a dilemma for U.S. military officials, who see no viable alternative force in Syria capable of and willing to mount an assault on Raqqa, a city where they say militants are plotting attacks against the West. Already, the YPG has received air support from the United States and, indirectly through Arab fighters, some U.S. weaponry.

Trump is expected to officially inform Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision next Tuesday, when Erdogan visits the White House.

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SOURCE: Missy Ryan, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Karen DeYoung
The Washington Post