U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested the United States will move away from arming Syrian Kurdish fighters, as part of a wider shift from a military-led to a diplomatic-led approach in Syria.
Mattis’ comments help clarify the status of the U.S. relationship with Kurdish YPG fighters, who have been a crucial U.S. partner in the Syrian war.
Turkey last week said President Donald Trump vowed to stop arming the YPG, during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Ankara, which sees the YPG as a terrorist group, has opposed the U.S. arming the Kurdish fighters.
However a White House statement issued after the call was more circumspect. It said Trump “also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return.”
But Mattis’ comments seem to confirm the U.S. intends to change its posture toward the YPG, as the U.S. makes that shift.
“That fighting is now dropping off in terms of the need for offensive capability. Consistent with that, we’re changing the composition of our forces to something that supports the diplomats and the Geneva Process,” Mattis said.
As Islamic State is defeated, the U.S. is shifting from a “military-led effort” to a “diplomatically led” effort, Mattis said. That approach will also affect U.S. allies in the region, he added.
“The YPG is armed. And as the coalition stops offensive ops then obviously you don’t need that. You need security — you need police forces. That’s local forces to make sure that ISIS doesn’t come back,” he said.
Asked whether this means the U.S. will stop arming the YPG, Mattis replied: “We are going to go exactly along the lines of what the president announced.”
Mattis’ comments came as he headed to the Middle East, where he will make stops in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Pakistan.