Turkey’s National Defense Ministry claims that Secretary of Defense James Mattis has promised Ankara that American officials are only lending, not giving, weapons to Syrian Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State and plan to retrieve those weapons following the liberation of Raqqa.
Raqqa, Syria, remains the largest city in Islamic State control in the world, and the capital of the Islamic State “caliphate.” The Pentagon contends that the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) are the most effective force on the ground in Syria fighting the Islamic State and announced it would arm the Kurdish troops for the battle of Raqqa in May. Coalition forces announced the official launch of the Raqqa operation this month.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported Thursday that Mattis sent a letter to Defense Minister Fikri Isik promising that “weapons delivered to the PKK/PYD [YPG] will be taken back after Daesh [ISIS] is defeated,” referring to the YPG with the acronym of a different group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is a Marxist U.S.-designated terrorist organization; the Turkish government does not distinguish between the PKK and America’s YPG allies.
The Anadolu report continues to claim Mattis “pledged the U.S. would provide a monthly list of weapons and equipment supplied to the PKK/PYD.” He reportedly continued to note that the YPG is working in tandem with the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic coalition and that “80 percent of the SDF troops that would go into Raqqah would be Arabs,” not Kurds.
The city of Raqqa does not lie in Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan, which has given rise to concerns that Kurdish fighters will not return the city to Arab residents following the fall of Raqqa.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet adds that the Turkish Defense Ministry claimed that American officials have described their cooperation with the YPG as “forced,” and Mattis requested an in-person meeting with his counterpart at the end of the month.
In early May, the Pentagon announced that it would send heavy weapons to the “Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces” – the YPG and its female units, the YPJ – in anticipation of the operation to liberate Rappa.
“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,” a Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement. “We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey. 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.”
While the YPG cooperate with the United States on the ground in Syria, providing key intelligence for targeted American airstrikes, the Turkish government opposes working with them on the grounds that they are part of a greater PKK umbrella organization. The United States has rejected this claim, noting the staunch anti-Islamist, pro-American YPG stance. The YPG support establishing an independent Kurdish state in Rojava, however, which Turkey sees as a threat.
“We emphasize how risky YPG support is for the future of Syria… These steps are extremely dangerous in terms of Syria’s national unity and border integrity,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, calling the move a threat to “all humanity.”
The Turkish government later threatened to attack the YPG directly, with one official telling the Washington Post, “Turkey reserves the right to take military action.” This week, Turkey sent more troops into Syria near Aleppo, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, to allegedly “reinforce” the Arab Syrian rebel-held area.
The battle for Raqqa currently consists largely in surrounding the city, taking over small towns and villages surrounding Raqqa to prevent jihadists from fleeing when the urban battle begins.