Defense Secretary James Mattis guaranteed Thursday that American heavy weapons and equipment heading to Kurdish militias in Syria would not end up in the hands of groups Turkey deems as terrorist organizations.
Mr. Mattis met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım on the sidelines of a counterterrorism summit in London, focused on efforts to defeat the Somali terror group Al-Shabaab.
“I would characterize it as the usual sort of honest, transparent and helpful discussion between two long-term NATO allies on issues that … directly impact the security of Turkey, and how we work out the way ahead in regards to the continued offensive” against the terror group known as ISIS or ISIL, Mr. Mattis told reporters in London.
It is the first face-to-face meeting between senior U.S. and Turkish officials since President Trump gave the Pentagon the green light to directly provide arms and heavy weapons to Kurdish militias battling the Islamic State in Syria.
Ankara had vehemently opposed the deal, since the U.S. weapons would provide support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Syrian Kurds could receive mortars, heavy machine guns and armored tactical vehicles as part of the Trump administration’s plan. On Wednesday, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said the decision was simply “unacceptable.”
It remains unclear whether Turkey will ratchet up its unilateral air campaign against Kurdish targets in Syria. The strikes were part of an ongoing counterterrorism operation targeting members of the YPG, some of who could potentially be teamed with U.S. military advisers.
Last Wednesday, Ilnur Cevik, a senior aide to President Erdogan, said American forces teamed up with members YPG, could be in danger of being hit by Turkish fighters patrolling the volatile border region with Syria.
Later, Mr. Cevik attempted to walk back his comments on social media, regarding U.S. forces working with Kurdish militias. “Turkey has never and will never hit its allies anywhere, and that includes the U.S. in Syria,” he said in a tweet posted shortly after Wednesday’s radio interview.
The YPG is the armed faction of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization. The YPG is also part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF — the consortium of Syrian Kurdish and Arab militias battling the group known as ISIS or ISIL. The SDF is expected to spearhead the coming assault on the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mattis definitively ruled out any scenario where the American weapons would end up in the hands of terrorists. “We support Turkey in its fight against PKK as a fellow NATO member, just like all the NATO countries stand with Turkey against the PKK,” the Pentagon chief said.
“We do not ever give weapons to the PKK. We never have and never will,” Mr. Mattis added, noting the White House “agree[s] 100 percent with Turkey’s concern about PKK.”
The Obama administration had approved military support for the YPG and other Kurdish militias in early 2015, as they fought to drive ISIS from the Syrian town of Kobane, which straddles the Turkish border. But that support was passed along through allied forces and not directly from the U.S., ostensibly over concerns that direct support would anger Turkey, a NATO ally.
But as the endgame in Syria looms, President Trump’s decision to openly arm YPG elements in Syria is an acknowledgement that the YPG, underneath the SDF umbrella, are the only force that as a chance to retake Raqqa and defeat ISIS in Syria.
During their meeting, Mr. Mattis sought to reinforce that notion with Mr. Yıldırım, reminding him that Turkey is not only a NATO ally but a key player in the anti-ISIS coalition.
“I have no doubt that Turkey and the United States will work this out with due consideration, significant attention paid to Turkey’s security, to NATO’s security, and the continuing campaign against ISIS. And Turkey is committed to that campaign,” he said.
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