U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a swift snub to NATO partner Turkey, approving the sale of arms to Kurdish fighters seeking to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.
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There was no immediate reaction from the Turkish government, whose president, Tayyip Erdogan, is expected to meet Trump in Washington next week. Kurdish militias in Syria are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who have faced a brutal counterinsurgency campaign waged by the state for over three decades. Ankara authorities consider the group to be a terrorist threat.
Washington, however, sees the arming of Kurdish forces "as necessary to ensure a clear victory" in Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria. "We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana 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 U.S. has directly supplied arms to Arab factions belonging to the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which include YPG fighters; a move the Pentagon hopes to continue.
One U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the equipment for the Kurdish fighters could include small arms, ammunition, machine guns, armored vehicles and engineering equipment.
The Pentagon, however, claims that it remains sensitive to the security needs of Turkey. The U.S. relies on access to Turkey's Incirlik air base to wage strikes within Syria.
On Monday, a high-ranking group of Turkish officials was informed of the decision by White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster. According to reports, the delegation included presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, top Turkish commander General Hulusi Akar, and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. The group had been sent to Washington to talk Trump out of providing arms to the Kurds, but they were instead told that the decision had already been made.
Syrian Kurds saw the move as a definite boost to the group's efforts and its collaboration with U.S. forces in the region. “In the beginning, American support was secret,” Alan Hassan, a Kurd in northeastern Syria's Qamishli, told The New York Times. “Now it is public. The relationship has changed from undeclared to declared.”
While the arms supplies may contribute to a speedy victory in Raqqa, the move will definitely complicate relations between Washington and Ankara. "There have been bad episodes in the relationship between the United States and Turkey, but this one is serious because it gets to the heart of Turkish security priorities," Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Reuters. "You've now got a question mark over the U.S.-Turkish security relationship that is pretty serious."