Trump Support for Syrian Kurds Recharges Plan to Liberate Islamic State ‘Capital’ Raqqa

Islamic State flag

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are on the march again after a halt of combat operations to liberate the Islamic State’s capital city.

[President Trump] authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. The SDF, partnered with enabling support from U.S. and coalition forces, are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday.

This key decision marks the resumption of SDF operations to bring a final defeat to ISIS. Prior to the commitment of direct American support to the SDF, the Kurdish-led forces suspended their offensive in the 15 days following surprise Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

statement released by the Kurdish elements of the SDF said that although the decision was “made a bit late,” it will bring “rapid” results in the fight against terrorism and noted that, until now, the Kurdish forces suffered “deficiencies for a long time” due to insufficient arms and equipment.

The Kurdish commanders had long maintained that they could not be America’s chief ally and boots on the ground while NATO member Turkey carried out airstrikes and ground incursions against their forces.

Turkey opposes a U.S.-Kurdish partnership on the grounds that the Syrian Kurdish forces are too closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish party the Turks have long fought. Both Turkey and the United States have designated the PKK a terrorist organization, though the United States does not consider the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), who make up much of the SDF, the same organization as the PKK.

Turkey, meanwhile, failed to convince the western coalition of a better military alternative.

This decisive move on the part of the United States comes on the heels of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s White House visit next week, a meeting which will turn from an effort to dissuade President Trump from arming the Kurdish forces to one of President Erdogan coming to terms with America’s strategy.

In the meantime, Turkey’s defense minister declared that the move to arm the Kurds is a “crisis,” adding to the statement from the Turkish deputy prime minister that the decision is “unacceptable.”

In February, the Turkish foreign minister warned this would be a “red line”; Tuesday, the prime minister said Turkey will not participate in the Raqqa operation.

Curiously, the Turkish government seemed to lack a “red line” against ISIS as the terror group gained momentum — and Turkey appeared to stand by as minorities were massacred along their border, from Kobani to Sinjar. The YPG played a pivotal role in the liberation of Kobani, while PKK fighters are partly credited with liberating Sinjar (the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq contests that their participation was positive for the region).

For now, it remains difficult to predict the fallout from a Turkish decision to not participate — they never played a significant role, up to this point.

The author is a Kurdish Affairs analyst.


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