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 (IS), writes Thomas Seibert.
The move is provoking a crisis in relations with NATO ally Turkey. 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 met 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.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly