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CENTCOM Head Visits Syrian Rebel Allies, Concerning Turkey

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) General Joseph Votel made an unannounced visit to Syria last week to meet with the heads of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia fighting the Islamic State largely composed of Kurdish fighters.

The government of Turkey has repeatedly demanded the United States not aid the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who make up an estimated two-thirds of the SDF. The U.S. claims only to aid the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), a smaller member of the SDF coalition.

“During the conversation, General Votel understood their need for logistical support and resources that may be greater than what they have been provided up until now,” spokesman Colonel John Thomas said of the conversation between Votel and SDF leaders. “While assuring them that this was a need he understands, he did not make specific promises.”

SDF spokesman Talal Sello told the Agence France-Presse that, on the contrary, Votel had promised the United States would specifically equip them with “heavy weapons in future stages. “The results were positive. We discussed the developments in the Euphrates Rage campaign and shared military matters,” Sello said.

“The results were positive. We discussed the developments in the Euphrates Rage campaign and shared military matters,” Sello said in a statement, adding that Votel offered “confirmation of U.S. support for our forces.”

Sello had previously told Reuters that he saw a renewed interest in supporting the SDF from the nascent Trump administration. “Previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition,” he said this month. “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership – more than before – for our forces.” The U.S. military issued a statement following this assertion stating that only the Syrian Arab Coalition would receive the support, not the Kurdish elements of the SDF.

Following the trip to Syria this weekend, CENTCOM confirmed that Votel met with SAC members, not all of the SDF, posting photos of SAC members training on Twitter.

Support for the SDF has caused significant tension with the Turkish government, which considers the Kurdish separatist YPG a terrorist organization, indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The United States has designated the PKK a terrorist group but cooperates with the YPG, with YPG members sharing intelligence the U.S. has used to strike Islamic State targets in Syria. The YPG (and its all-woman contingent the YPJ) are widely considered among the most successful militias currently fighting the Islamic State.

Daily Sabah, a government-friendly Turkish newspaper, quoted Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş as expressing dissatisfaction with Votel’s visit. “Is America going to cooperate with a 3,000-5,000-strong terror group, or a politically and economically stable Turkey with an 80 million population?” he reportedly asked. “They need to make a choice. And according to our observations, they agree with us more and more.” The newspaper notes similar concern during Votel’s last visit to the region in May 2016.

The Turkish government began targeting SDF forces on the ground in October, several months after entering the Syrian fray in Operation Euphrates Shield. “The Turkish military said its air strikes had destroyed nine buildings, one armored vehicle and four other vehicles that belonged to the YPG,” Reuters reported at the time, calling it the heaviest such attack since the operation began.

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