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U.S. Sends Islamic State Battle Envoy to Ankara as Turkey, U.S. Allies Trade Gunfire in Syria

Brett McGurk, US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill June 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on global efforts to defeat ISIS. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
FRANCES MARTEL

U.S. special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State Brett McGurk arrived in Ankara, Turkey, Friday to discuss the ongoing battle for Raqqa. Turkey, which recently called for McGurk’s firing, has increasingly engaged in attacks against the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ).

McGurk announced his arrival on Twitter, noting that his meetings in Turkey will involve discussions on “mutual efforts to defeat ISIS.” The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reports that McGurk will meet officials at both the Foreign and Defense Ministries in Ankara and update them on the situation on the ground in Syria. McGurk visited the Raqqa area this week to evaluate progress against the Islamic State in the battle to liberate the terrorist group’s “capital.”

The State Department described McGurk’s mission in Syria as a consultation with “local partners” on the ground. In a statement, the agency said McGurk “witnessed first-hand the humanitarian and stabilization assistance that is underway in liberated areas north of Raqqa, and held intensive discussions with local leaders and councils on post-liberation governance issues.”

McGurk reportedly praised the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) – a U.S.-allied multi-ethnic coalition of fighters led by the YPG – and emphasized that “local officials from the area” should control the reconstruction of the city following its liberation. Many local interests have expressed concern that Raqqa is not part of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) and should not fall under Kurdish control after the Islamic State loses it.

In comments to Arabic television, McGurk noted also that the United States has a responsibility to ensure that ISIS terrorists currently in Raqqa do not leave to cause chaos elsewhere in the world. “Our mission is to make sure that no foreign fighters, that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country and came into Syria, that they will die here in Syria… If they are in Raqqa, they’re gonna die in Raqqa,” he said this week.

McGurk also posted some photos from his visit on Twitter.

The U.S. government described McGurk’s visit as necessary and “routine.” “Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk visits Iraq and Syria often to discuss humanitarian and stabilization assistance, and to coordinate between our military and civilian initiatives, as well as post-liberation governance for areas liberated from ISIS with our partners on the ground,” the State Department told reporters.

In addition to local Arab concerns about YPG participation in the battle for Raqqa, the Turkish government has adamantly opposed any U.S. cooperation with the group.

Turkey considers the YPG a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization. While the United States has designated the PKK a terrorist group, it considers the YPG a separate entity and the “only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” In May, the Pentagon announced it would provide heavy weapons to the “Kurdish elements of the SDF” specifically for use in the battle of Raqqa.

Shortly after that statement, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued a demand that America fire Brett McGurk and replace him with an anti-Kurdish diplomat. “Brett McGurk, the USA’s special envoy in the fight against Daesh, is definitely and clearly giving support to the PKK and YPG. It would be beneficial if this person is changed,” Cavusoglu said, adding that McGurk should lose his job because he was appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Turkish military has also continued to target the YPG, particularly in the Afrin region close to the Syrian-Turkish border. “The Kurdish people in Afrin region have suffered a lot under heavy bombardment by Turkey and allied Islamists,” a YPG spokesperson said this week. “We will respond to any Turkish attacks on Rojava-Northern Syria. The Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Islamists will be a main target for our forces in the area.”

SDF officer Naser Haj Mansour told Reuters there was a “big possibility of open, fierce confrontation” with Turkey should they continue to attack, creating the significant threat of a distraction from the fight against the Islamic State that could benefit the jihadists.

The SDF announced Thursday that they had surrounded Raqqa’s city limits and are beginning to prepare for the urban warfare chapter of the right to take back the city. Raqqa remains the last major Islamic State stronghold in the region and largest in the world. Islamic State terrorists are also holding one city in Asia: Marawi, the only officially “Islamic City” in the Philippines.

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