Top Turkish officials are increasing pressure on the United States to dissolve the American military partnership with Syrian Kurds in the battle against Islamic State.
With just days to go before the Pentagon is expected to deliver to U.S. President Donald Trump a new war plan to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Turkey, a NATO ally, is urging Washington to earmark Syrian opposition groups aligned with Ankara for the push to drive Islamic State militants from their de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.
This week, there has been a parade of senior Turkish officials making the point publicly time and again, urging the U.S. to drop its support of the Kurds and exclude the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from the assault to capture Raqqa.
Instead, they want the U.S. to train and arm Syrian militias who have been fighting alongside the Turks in northern Syria in Operation Euphrates Shield, a months-long Turkish intervention in northern Syria west of Raqqa aimed at clearing both IS and the YPG from territory close to the Turkish border.
“If heavy weapons and armored vehicles that have been delivered to the YPG would be given to the opposition groups, there would be no more Daesh problem,” Turkey’s European Union minister, Omer Celik, told a group of journalists this week while in Poland, using an acronym for IS.
Turkey sees the YPG as a terror group and an offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in Turkey for more than three decades.
It remains unclear whether the Trump administration is going to be any more successful than Barack Obama's in juggling the competing demands of Ankara and Syria’s Kurds. There is deep skepticism in Washington that Ankara can assemble even a force large enough, drawn from Syria’s rebel militias to attack Raqqa. In the past the militias, whose main enemy is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have dismissed efforts by Washington to persuade them to see IS as a priority.
Turkish officials have voiced confidence in recent days that their argument will prevail in Washington, if not with the Pentagon, at least with the White House, which has wanted to improve U.S.-Turkish relations more broadly.
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık, who announced on Thursday that the Syrian town of al-Bab had been largely captured from IS by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces during the Euphrates Shield operation, told reporters in the Turkish capital that the Trump administration is evaluating whether to abandon the YPG as a partner.
Turkish hopes appear to be misplaced, say analysts, who point out heavy armor was supplied to the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces on January 31, 11 days into the Trump presidency.
Syrian Kurds also are convinced the Pentagon will maintain its alliance with the YPG and their Arab SDF allies. Their confidence was boosted this week by a visit to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani by U.S. Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Turkish effort to persuade the new U.S. administration to abandon the Kurds began on February 8 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a phone call with President Trump, emphasized that the PKK is considered a designated terrorist organization by the U.S.
According to Turkish officials, Erdogan stressed it was not a good idea to side with one terrorist organization against another and warned of bitter consequences if the U.S. persists in its alliance with the Syrian Kurds.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım conveyed a similar message to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last week at a security conference in Munich.
During the last few weeks, U.S. and Turkish defense and intelligence chiefs thrashed out plans for an assault on Raqqa. But according to U.S. officials, a Turkish delegation of diplomats as well as defense and intelligence officials visiting Washington on February 13 and 14 was rebuffed when it argued for the Kurds to be excluded from the assault on Raqqa.
U.S. defense chiefs were the most vocal in pushing back on the Turks, a Pentagon official told VOA on condition of anonymity.
“The Turks had no clear battle plan to offer and we are under pressure from the White House to come up with a plan to take Raqqa quickly," he said. "If we switch now and drop the SDF, it would delay an attack on the city by several months, possibly even a year."
Analysts argue the Trump administration has little appetite for delaying an assault on Raqqa. They say there’s deep Pentagon skepticism even of Ankara’s seriousness about an offensive on the IS stronghold.
“Recapturing Raqqa is not Turkey’s main and immediate goal,” argued Ferhat Gurini, Middle East editor of RÆSON, a Danish political quarterly.
The Turks have publicly indicated their next target is the Kurdish-controlled town of Manbij — part of their bid to ensure Syrian Kurds are blocked from linking Kurdish cantons along the border with Turkey.
Securing some agreement from the Turks may well be essential for a Kurdish-dominated SDF assault on Raqqa to take place, though. Ankara could disrupt an offensive on Raqqa by escalating attacks on the YPG in northern Syria — and by mounting a full-scale assault on Manbij.