Hayward: Free Syrian Army, Once the Great ‘Moderate’ Hope, Joins Turkey to Attack Kurds

Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, Feb. 6, 2018:

Turkey has conducted its “Operation Olive Branch” military incursion into Syria in concert with the Free Syrian Army, which has helped Turkish forces take control of several villages in the Afrin region.

This is an uncomfortable development for U.S. policymakers because both the Kurds and Free Syrian Army were considered battlefield allies of the United States in the war against the Islamic State, and the FSA was seen as the model white-hat rebel group when the Obama administration and intervention-minded Republicans were desperately seeing “moderate” forces in the Syrian rebellion to support.

In fact, as recently as last spring, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) strongly urged increased support for the Free Syrian Army as part of the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Syria while holding the regime of dictator Bashar Assad at bay.

McCain has long been prominent among those convinced the Free Syrian Army was America’s best bet for a terrorist-free moderate rebel group to arm and support, a step he felt the Obama administration was much too reluctant to take while Russia was busy shipping arms to the Syrian regime.

He made a surprise visit to the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 to meet with FSA leaders who wanted American heavy weapons, up to and including anti-aircraft weapons, and American air support against FSA adversaries such as Hezbollah. At the time, the FSA claimed to be running perilously low on munitions, which does not seem to be a problem now that they are fighting on Turkey’s behalf against the Kurds.

McCain has not responded well to contrary arguments about the FSA, as when he reportedly stormed out of the room during a 2014 presentation by Syrian Christians who said there were Islamist fighters among the FSA’s ranks.

There was a good deal of confusion surrounding support for the Free Syrian Army in the Obama administration, which occasionally seemed uncertain about what kind of support it was sending them. Critics complained effective support for moderate rebel groups was announced too late, after too much dithering, and was delivered too long after it was finally announced. The aid program that eventually materialized was an unserious disaster.

Whether reluctantly as with Obama, or eagerly as with McCain, plans for zero-footprint Syrian intervention kept circling back around to the Free Syrian Army, despite persistent warnings it contained some unlovely people and outright terrorists. One reason for this default support is that many of the other options for American support were Kurdish groups or members of Kurdish-dominated umbrella organizations, which was problematic because U.S. policymakers wanted to avoid conflict with the Turkish and Iraqi governments. Going all-in on the Kurds would inevitably bring accusations that America was supporting Kurdish nationalists, separatists, or terrorists (as Turkey would have it).

To this very day, Turkey denounces American support for the Kurds as direct support for terrorists, no different in principle from shipping arms to the Islamic State, which is something the Turks also charge America with doing when they are especially upset. It may come as some small consolation to know that everyone involved in the Syrian quagmire accuses everyone else of supporting terrorism, and they quite frequently have a point, since even the better rebel groups have been known to cooperate with powerful terrorist forces like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front from time to time. It is difficult for outside powers to be certain that a weapon given to a white-hat moderate rebel today will not be handed over, voluntarily or involuntarily, to a terrorist or war criminal tomorrow.

In a 2013 profile of the Free Syrian Army, the BBC noted it was a “loose network of brigades rather than a unified fighting force,” with very little operational control exercised by appealing and high-minded spokesmen like Brigadier General Salim Idris.

Brigades aligned with the Free Syrian Army and its spinoff organizations retained “separate identities, agendas and commands.” The BBC noted that some of them “work with hardline Islamist groups that alarm the West, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.”

Deutsche Welle recalls that, a few weeks ago, a delegation from the Free Syrian Army came to Washington and argued that if the CIA did not resume military aid frozen by the Trump administration, its “moderate” forces would have no choice but to look elsewhere for support. Virtually overnight, the FSA signed up with Turkey to work as mercenaries in its war against the Syrian Kurds, which DW notes is difficult to square with the FSA’s nominal mission of battling the tyranny of Bashar Assad on behalf of the Syrian people. It also argues against viewing the FSA as the kind of staunch moderate ally who can be entrusted with American weapons as they fight a noble battle to liberate Syria from cruel dictatorship.

“The Free Syrian Army practically doesn’t exist,” DW quotes Mideast expert Kamal Sido telling a German broadcaster. “The Free Syrian Army is a smokescreen hiding various names, and if you look at the names, at these groups’ videos, you’ll find they are radical Islamist, Jihadist groups.”

Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution contributed the observation that nearly 80 distinct factions now identify themselves with the FSA brand, and while some are moderate in outlook, others are hardline Islamist radicals. The group as a whole is moving inexorably into the orbit of radicals, and Islamist patrons like Turkey’s Erdogan, simply because they tend to be better-armed and more ruthlessly effective on the battlefield.

If such groups ever succeeded in overthrowing Assad, they would likely either replace him with an Islamist tyranny or turn their guns against their erstwhile moderate allies – which is essentially what the FSA is doing to the Syrian Kurds right now. At this point, with Russian and Iranian support firmly behind Assad, his ouster seems unlikely, so the “rebels” are largely fighting for concessions at the negotiating table and perhaps a degree of autonomy to run their own little fiefdoms within postwar Syria. Every proposal to arm Syrian groups must carefully consider what those groups actually intend to fight for.

It should also consider how they fight. Syrian Kurds are protesting the brutality of the Turkey-FSA invasion of Afrin, which threatens to push even further into Syria, as President Erdogan has openly called for American troops to get out of his way.

Over the weekend, video footage surfaced that appears to show Free Syrian Army fighters fondling and abusing the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter killed in the Afrin operation. One of them described the woman’s body as “the spoils of war from the female pigs of the PKK,” which is the violent Kurdish separatist organization in Turkey. The Turks insist that all Syrian Kurdish militia forces are allied with the PKK, including those directly supported by the United States.

The Free Syrian Army high command promised to investigate the incident and hold those involved accountable, “if it is verified in accordance with Sharia law and our principles.” The use of Islamic law to decide whether clearly heinous activity constitutes a war crime is not what the Western world should be looking for in a “moderate” ally.

Conversely, the Turks and their allies accuse the Kurds of fighting dirty and allying themselves with the brutal Assad regime, and Kurdish forces have been blamed for civilian deaths from a rocket barrage that struck a refugee camp near the Turkish border on Monday.

Syria is a bloody mess, and white hats are hard to find, but the hellish conundrum is that failure to intervene unleashed a refugee wave that threatens to drown Europe, not to mention a humanitarian disaster within Syria that should be utterly intolerable to the civilized world. The Free Syrian Army clearly is not the easy answer that so many people have so desperately wanted it to be for the past five years. They proved it by joining a Turkish operation that may soon put the lives of American troops at risk and threaten the future of NATO.

Also see:

Civilians in Northern Syria Flee to Caves as Turkish Invasion Barrels On

Russian-Turkish axis in Syria faces meltdown

Syrian Kurds: Russia Pressured Us to Give Afrin to Assad ‘One Day’ Before Turkish Attack

Red Lines in Syria

Front Page Magazine, by Kenneth  R. Timmerman, July 19, 2017:

Suleymania, Iraq – With Saturday’s bombing of Afrin, a town controlled by America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, Turkey appears to have crossed a line.

Turkish artillery pounded the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood near the city center as well as surrounding villages. Reports from the region said the Turkish attack killed five civilians, including an entire family that was buried alive in their own home, and damaged dozens of homes.

“This is considered the first targeting of the city since the start of Turkish preparations” to expand military operations in Northwest Syria last month, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Turkish attacks were not directed against ISIS or against any other Islamist group. The Turks targeted Afrin because it has become a key political hub for the Democratic Union Party of Syria, the YPD, which Turkey accuses of being part of the PKK.

I spoke with Asya Abdallah Osman, the co-president of the YPD, on the sidelines of a conference both of us were attending in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was visibly shaken when she called home and learned details about the civilian casualties in Afrin.

“We have been fighting [ISIS] because we as women do not want to be subjected to their inhumanity. But we need your help,” she said, meaning the United States. “We need no other. This is war and people are dying. It won’t be resolved by politics, only by hard power.”

She swept aside the Turkish allegations that the regional government of the YPD, and its associated militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), were controlled by the PKK, or that the PKK was using YPD territory to launch attacks into Turkey.

“We are an independent political party that belongs to Syria and to the Kurds. If the PKK has come to Syria, it’s because Turkey has forced them to come,” she said.

Turkey has long accused the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, or fighting a terrorist war against it, but also has been willing to negotiate with PKK leaders when it felt it could reach a deal to curtail the violence.

After Turkey violated a 2013 truce negotiated in Oslo that called for the PKK to remove its fighters from Turkey into northern Iraq, the PKK relocated remaining fighters into the Kurdish areas in Syria, known as Rojava.

Like most Kurds, Ms. Osman believes Turkey and its allies in the region do not want to see a successful democratic self-governing region in northern Syria, because it would encourage their own Kurds to seek greater autonomy.

“They accuse us of not being democratic, but we have allowed all political and ethnic groups to have representatives in the regional government. Our project is for all of Syria, not just Kurds,” she told me.

Ms. Osman traveled to Northern Iraq in a group of 65 Syrian Kurdish activists, representing nearly twenty political groups.

Normally, they would have entered Iraq via a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River at Semalka, in an area that has escaped the current fighting.

But the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq closed the border recently, forcing the Syrian pro-democracy delegates to make a dangerous 16-hour trek by foot across the only other border crossing into Iraq near Mount Sinjar, which is controlled by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

“There is no Kurdish Regional Government,” Ms. Osman said dismissively. “There is only the KDP,” the Kurdish Democratic Party, dominated by President Massoud Barzani and his family.

She and other Kurdish activists at the weekend conference believe that Turkey pressured the Barzanis to close the Semalka border crossing in order to further isolate them. “Semulka is our only gate to the outside world,” she said. “When it is shut, we are closed off.”

She attributed claims that the YPD and its militia were controlled by the PKK to Turkish propaganda. “Of course, we have dialogue with other Kurdish parties, including the PKK. So do most Kurdish groups in the region. But we run our party and our administration ourselves. We elect our own officials and they take orders from no one.”

Indeed, I only learned after the conference that a member of the PKK central committee had attended the weekend event, sponsored by the Kurdistan National Congress, where three hundred delegates from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey strategized over a future Kurdish state or confederation.

There were few references to the PKK by the speakers, and the PKK central committeeman himself never spoke. The final declaration of the conference makes no mention of the PKK.

Both President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis have warned Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Turkey has blithely ignored those admonishments until now.

Less than a month after President Trump at the White House personally rejected Erdogan’s demand that the U.S. drop support for the Syrian Kurds, Turkey began moving troops to encircle Afrin, the political capital of the Syrian Kurdish region, and other Kurdish controlled areas.

After Turkey started to attack YPG positions in late June, Secretary of Defense James Mattis upped the ante by declaring that the United States might allow the Kurdish group to keep U.S. supplied weapons after the battle for Raqqa to smash ISIS was over.

Some of Erdogan’s erstwhile political allies believe he Erdogan is playing a dangerous game.

Even before the Turkish attacks on civilians over the weekend, former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, who helped found Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, counseled against attacking the Syrian Kurds.

“The best course would be to negotiate a deal with the Syrian Kurds, persuade them not to attempt to change the ethnic composition of the region, and establish – preferably in cooperation with the Syrian government – a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democratic administration,” Yakis wrote in a column for Arab News.

That is precisely the project Ms. Osman and the YPD have been proposing.

Erdogan showed his arrogance in Washington when he calmly observed his bodyguards cross a Capitol Police barrier in May to viciously bludgeon opposition protestors with truncheons.

But by putting his forces in a position where they could potentially clash with U.S. military units assisting the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces, Erdogan has shown a reckless side as well.

Turkey has been warned twice. Will Afrin prove to be the third strike for Erdogan in Syria?

It’s Time for the United States to Support Kurdish Independence

French President Francois Hollande receives the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani for talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on February 21, 2017. Photo by Christian Liewig/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

PJ Media, by Joseph Pruder, July 13, 2017:

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on independence on September 25, 2017. By all accounts, the majority of Iraqi Kurds under the umbrella of the KRG would vote for independence.

This would make Iraqi Kurdistan the 196th sovereign state. In terms of fairness and justice, it is long overdue, given the lack of self-determination for 40 million Kurds in the wider region, and the approximately 5.5 million Iraqi Kurds.

Naturally, all of the neighboring states — Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey — have had a pact among them to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state. They fear that any Kurdish independence would inspire their own restless Kurdish minorities to join the newly establish Kurdish state. The Kurds in Turkey account for about 20% of Turkey’s 80 million plus people. In Iran, the Kurdish population is the third largest component after the Persians and the Azeris. The Kurds comprise 10% of Iran’s population of over 79 million. In Syria, Kurds number approximately 2.5 million out of a total population of 17.6 million. In all of the countries listed above, the governments are known to have deliberately undercounted the Kurdish population.

Sadly, U.S. administrations have hung on to the erroneous policy that Iraq must be maintained in its current form as a “united” Iraq. Yet Iraq, like neighboring Syria, is a fractured entity that combines ethnic and religious groups that do not wish to stay together. The U.S. policy has been wedded to a non-existent reality.

The colonial powers of Britain and France concocted — under the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) — the outrageously mismatched entities/states of Iraq and Syria. They did not take into consideration the interests of the local populations, but rather sought to advance their own political and economic interests. It put under the same roof Sunni-Muslim Arabs (led by the Hashemite King Feisal of the Hijaz in Saudi Arabia), who ruled over a Shiite-Muslim Arab majority, and added into the mix the Northern Kurdish area with its oil deposits in Kirkuk. Although most Kurds are Sunnis, they are not Arabs, and they have always been discriminated against by the Arab regimes in Iraq and Syria.

It is incomprehensible why the previous U.S. administrations would side with the regime in Baghdad, and not with the pro-American and pro-Western Kurdistan Regional Government. For all intents and purposes, it is already an independent entity with its own government ensconced in the capital of Erbil, with its own parliament, flag, and army.

The Baghdad government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, is doing Iran’s bidding, and its powerful Shiite militias are more loyal to the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, than to the Iraq government. They are more likely to side with Iran rather than the U.S. if and when an open conflict between the U.S. and Iran occurs.

To understand the advantages for the U.S. and its allies should an independent Kurdish state arise in northern Iraq, this reporter asked Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly, to explain them:

An independent Kurdistan will bring to a halt the creeping Shia Crescent. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states have recently started to view an independent Kurdistan in a positive light. They view it as a way to confront Iranian aggression in the Middle East. These Sunni-Arab states are willing to accept a divided Iraq and Syria, becoming a buffer against Iran and the new emerging neo-Ottoman threat from Turkey, which seeks to replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world.

In the past, U.S. Congress would remind us of the vital economic interests the U.S. has with 21 Arab nations, not to mention Turkey as a NATO ally. However, the new developments in the Arab world should convince many in the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration that supporting an independent Kurdistan would bring stability to the region, and reduce two major threats from Iran and Turkey. Moreover, the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria have been and continue to be the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State.

Two years ago, the Arab world opposed the idea of splitting the “Arab lands” of Iraq and Syria. Now however, they know that if they keep these two countries whole, it would disadvantage and undermine the Saudi kingdom and benefit Iran. It is for this reason that the moderate Sunni states think it is good to let the people of these nations (Iraq and Syria) go their own way.

It is also important to note that the U.S. does not need American boots on the ground in order to confront Iranian aggression in the Middle East. A good portion of Iran’s Islamic Republic is comprised of large minority groups such as the Azeris, Balochis, Kurds, and Ahwazi Arabs. These groups are capable of waging an uprising against the Iranian regime, and could help collapse it from within. As the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds unite to form an independent state, the U.S. will be able to use an independent Kurdistan as its Middle East base in the struggle against international terrorism. Finally, America should support an independent Kurdistan because it is the right and moral thing to do.

Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Russia appear to have agreed upon crushing Kurdish aspirations, while at the same time undermining the U.S. and its allies in the region. It is therefore time for the U.S. to support an independent Kurdistan and a confederation of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds.

The Treaty of Sevres (August 1920), signed by the Ottoman government, provided for a Kurdish state. It was then superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. All the promises to the Kurds were nullified. Kemal Ataturk annexed the Kurdish area. The Soviets, for their own reasons and interests, helped the Kurds in Iran establish an independent entity called the Republic of Mahabad in 1946, but less than a year later it was crushed by the Shah of Iran. Iraqi Kurds have been struggling for autonomy since the 1930s.

In March 1970, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi-Kurdish parties agreed to a peace accord. It granted the Kurds autonomy. The accord also recognized Kurdish as an official language and amended the Iraqi constitution to state: “The Iraqi people is made of two nationalities, an Arab nationality and a Kurdish nationality.”

On March 16, 1988, over 6,800 Kurdish civilians died in a poison gas attack on the town of Halabjah. The attack was initiated by the Iraqi-Arab dictator Saddam Hussein. A Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in March 1991, encouraged by the U.S. administration, ended up with Saddam Hussein unleashing his army against the Kurds. The U.S.-led forces refused to intervene to support the rebels, resulting in 1.5 million Kurds fleeing before the Iraqi onslaught.

The Kurds, unlike the Palestinians, have not been coddled by the United Nations or the European Union, nor do Western leftists groups wage demonstrations on behalf of their self-determination. Yet, unlike the Palestinians, they are a distinct people with their own language and culture. Also, the Kurds, unlike the Palestinians, have supported the U.S. fight against Islamic terror.

The Kurdish people have earned the right to self-determination and an independent state.

Also see:

Confronting the current Middle East alignment

Illustration on a coming Middle East alignment by Linas Garsys/The Washington Times

Washington Times by James A. Middle EastLyons, July 2, 2017:

With the imminent defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq and in Raqqa, its declared capital in Syria, one of the Trump administration’s key objectives is about to be achieved.

With the collapse of the Islamic State as a functioning entity, however, there are clearly new dynamics coming into play which will complicate the post-Islamic State period. What is actually taking place is a realignment of the regional balance of power between Shiite and Sunni power brokers. How it eventually evolves will have a major impact on U.S. security interests, and those of our allies, Israel in particular. The problem is that we have no clear strategy to deal with the evolving dynamic situation or its long term impact.

Clearly, an immediate problem is that Iran, backed by Russia, seeks to further expand its influence by solidifying a land bridge from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the eastern Mediterranean. Such a move would put a jihadi Shiite regime on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s domination of regimes in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus along with its play for Yemen puts it in position to surround the Arabian Peninsula and threaten strategic waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab. Backed by Iran and Russia, Bashar Assad’s control of Aleppo and the anticipated fall of Raqqa will likely embolden him to retake eastern Syria, too.

Preventing expansion of the Shiite Crescent must be a top U.S. objective, fundamental to restoring not only credibility with our key allies, but critical to restoring stability to the region as well. Key to achieving this objective without a massive influx of U.S. ground forces is maintaining the viability of pro-Western Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It is also possible that elements of the Syrian Free Army (SFA) can be reconstituted.

The recent downing by a U.S. Navy F-18 fighter aircraft of a Syrian bomber that had been attacking a pro-Western Kurdish force and an SDF unit highlighted Mr. Assad’s recognition of the importance of these forces in preventing reassertion of his control in eastern Syria. Perhaps just as important was Russian President Vladimir Putin likely using Syrian resources to test the Trump administration to see if it would support our allies on the ground if attacked. Fortunately, we did, which sent a clear message to both Russia and Syria as well as our allies that there are lines that cannot be crossed. The “strong horse” is back.

The Russian threat to target with surface-to-air missiles any U.S. aircraft flying west of the Euphrates is a further test of the Trump administration. While both Russia and the U.S. want to avoid a direct confrontation, we need to make it very clear we will not be intimidated.

Developing a strategy to address the current regional realignment should be based on U.S. core vital strategic interests. Further, the strategy should be based on the underlying principle that it makes no sense for the United States to inject itself into a 1,300+-year old Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian war. It is actually what the current realignment is all about.

The al Qaeda/Muslim Brotherhood militias rose up against Syria’s Bashar Assad, who was then defended by Iran, Hezbollah plus assorted Shiite militias and now Russia. Turkey is also an increasing problem: President Erdogan and his AK Party are jihadis trying to reestablish some form of the power and glory of the old Ottoman Empire. Dead set against any sort of autonomous Kurdish entity, they are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas — and now also with Iran and Qatar. At this point, Turkey must be viewed as a questionable Western ally.

Fundamental U.S. strategy must be based on preventing Iran from establishing a Shiite land bridge from Tehran to Lebanon. Therefore, a key element of our strategy should be to support the binding independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan to be held on Sept. 25, 2017. U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, officially opposes it because of a misguided objective to keep Iraq intact. But Iraq is already fractured as is Syria, and neither one will be reconstituted in its pre-WWI artificial geographic boundaries. Clearly, the 1916 Sykes-Picot nation-state arrangement has collapsed.

Our strategy should also support Syrian Kurds carving out their own sphere of influence (Rojava) which could eventually unite with Iraqi Kurdistan. Control of the vast Syrian Sunni interior that spans the border into the former Iraq remains unresolved. Damascus cannot control a federalized Syria even with Iranian and Russian support. Therefore, our strategic plan must back Sunni forces that have shown themselves to be both anti-Damascus and non-jihadist. The only group that falls into that category is the Free Syrian Army, which will need to be reinforced. U.S. policy should concede that Damascus will hold the Alawite heartland that includes the Russian bases at Latakia and Tartus.

With the 8 years the Obama administration squandered plus the transfer of over one hundred billion dollars to Iran (which it is now using to finance Shiite militias fighting to secure a land bridge across the IraqSyria border), we must shift from a reactive defensive strategy to a pro-active one.

Accordingly, the Trump team must first define a national security strategy for the region. Such a strategy must be predicated on reconstitution of U.S. military capability and demonstration of the will to project power and influence, specifically by supporting Kurdish-FSA-SDF forces and, together with our allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the GCC, block further Iranian expansionism. Elimination of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will also be an imperative at some point.

Bottom line: there is no substitute for American leadership.

• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.


Trump Defies Turkey, Approves Heavy Weapons for Syrian Kurds


Breitbart, by John Hayward May 9, 2017:

In a decision bound to infuriate Turkey, a senior Trump administration official said that heavier weapons would be approved for Syrian Kurdish forces as they close in on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.

The anonymous senior official was quoted by the Associated Press as part of its coverage of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ meetings on Syria. NBC News published similar quotes by two unnamed defense officials, who said the Kurds could receive rifles, ammunition, armor, communications gear, and engineering equipment, delivered by ground convoys and air drops. NBC’s sources did not go into detail about what type of heavy weapons might be sent to the Kurds.

Military Times reported over the weekend that elite YPG fighters are already armed with advanced American combat gear, including night-vision goggles, digital camouflage, body armor, and the type of rifles used by American special operations forces. Photos of YPG commandos with American gear began appearing online during the battle to capture the strategic town of Tabqa, west of Raqqa, in late March.

U.S. military officials have only acknowledged supplying the YPG with Russian-made weapons, such as the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle. Officials “offered only ambiguous responses” when asked how the Kurdish fighters acquired American gear. Military Times anticipated Turkey would be “infuriated.”

Dana White, chief spokeswoman for the Defense Department, issued a statement on Tuesday formally acknowledging President Trump’s decision:

Yesterday, the president 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.

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.

The U.S. continues to prioritize our support for Arab elements of the SDF. Raqqa and all liberated territory should return to the governance of local Syrian Arabs.

The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult, but will ultimately be yet another defeat for ISIS, and another step toward eliminating the ISIS threat to peace and security in the region and the world.

Turkey’s response will largely depend on whether they acknowledge a significant difference between the Kurdish YPG militia and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group of Arabs, Assyrians, and other groups led by the Kurds against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Syrian regime.

American analysts have expressed a high degree of confidence in the training, discipline, and fighting ability of the SDF. The U.S. military has such a good relationship with the SDF that some American soldiers participated in an SDF ceremony recently at which some 250 female veterans of the YPG militia were inducted into Syrian Democratic Forces ranks.

The U.S. Central Command reportedly sent Mattis a request last week asking to arm the Kurds. Defense officials and analysts said Mattis and President Trump were likely to approve the plan, which envisioned a mixed Kurdish and Arab force supported by American artillery and airstrikes to push ISIS out of Raqqa. The Obama administration also believed Kurdish troops would be key to recapturing the city, but President Barack Obama was said to be reluctant to approve the plan for Raqqa so close to Trump taking office.

Reuters described Mattis as “upbeat” after meeting with a Turkish official in Copenhagen, Denmark on Tuesday. Mattis said the administration intended to “work with the Turks, alongside one another, to take Raqqa down, and we’re going to sort it out and we’ll figure out how we’re going to do it.”

However, U.S. officials said Mattis was not signaling a new agreement with Turkey about the battle plan for Raqqa, and maintained the Trump administration is skeptical of Turkey’s claims that it can manage the liberation of Raqqa without Kurdish help.

Turkey adamantly insists that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia is allied with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a Kurdish separatist organization that both Turkey and the United States classify as terrorist in nature. On the other hand, the U.S. views the YPG as an invaluable battlefield ally against the Islamic State, and quietly rejects Turkish characterizations of the Syrian Kurdish militia as an offshoot of the PKK.

Turkey has not merely been critical of the YPG – it has attacked Kurdish positions in Syria, prompting military responses from the Kurds. One of Turkey’s professed strategic goals in Syria is preventing the Kurds from annexing all or part of Raqqa. Kurdish leaders have said that if the people of Raqqa wish to join their autonomous “democratic federal” system after the Islamic State is defeated, that would be fine with them.

The U.S. military has been patrolling the Turkey-Syria border to discourage further Turkish attacks on the Kurds. Turkish officials have suggested they might not care if American troops get in the way during their next operation against the YPG.

Mattis also said that he was reviewing the Russian proposal to create “safe zones” for refugees in Syria, a proposal co-sponsored by Turkey and Iran.

“It’s all in process right now,” Mattis said en route to Copenhagen Monday. “Who is going to be ensuring they’re safe? Who is signing up for it? Who is specifically to be kept out of them? All these details are to be worked out and we’re engaged.”

Mattis said another important consideration was whether the safe zone proposal would affect the battle against the Islamic State – a distinct possibility, since the safe zones are supposed to be no-fly zones for all military aircraft, including those belonging to the United States and its anti-ISIS coalition partners.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump on May 16. Erdogan has already suggested the American alliance with Syrian Kurds would be the top item on the agenda.

Also see:

U.S. forces in buffer zone to block Turk-Kurdish fighting

This Saturday, April. 29, 2017 still taken from video, shows an American soldier standing on an armored vehicle in the northern village of Darbasiyah, Syria. U.S. moved troops and armored vehicles through several Syrian cities and towns on Friday and Saturday in a show of force apparently intended to dissuade Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces from attacking each other. (AP Photo via APTV)

Washington Times, by Carlo Munoz, May 1, 2017:

The distinctive green and gold banner of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG flew alongside the Stars and Stripes this week, as U.S. troops and Kurdish paramilitaries took up positions in northern Syria’s enclave of Rojava.

The combination marked a dramatic show of solidarity by the Pentagon for the Kurdish force, amid Turkish airstrikes targeting those U.S.-backed forces there.

Images of Army Strykers and YPG vehicles rolling into Kurdish-held territory in Syria flooded social media on Sunday, as American commanders deployed the Army units into Rojava, near the Turkish-Syrian border, with the U.S. military staking out what could become a buffer zone to quell fighting between the militias and Turkish forces that threatens to derail the fight against Islamic State.

The move comes a week after Turkey, a NATO ally, launched a new round of airstrikes against YPG elements along the border region. Ankara characterized the strikes, which killed upwards of 70 Kurdish fighters, as a “counterterrorism” operation targeting members of the YPG, which Turkey charges has links to a Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey that has long battled the government.

Members of the YPG are also part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the constellation of Arab and Kurdish militias who are preparing for the large-scale assault on Raqqa, the self-styled capital of Islamic State.

On Monday, SDF forces recaptured the town surrounding the strategically vital Tabqa Dam, roughly 30 miles west of Raqqa. Securing the dam, along with the surrounding town and adjacent airfield, will provide Syrian and coalition forces with a prime launching point for future operations on Raqqa.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday vowed to carry out more strikes against Kurdish targets in northern Syria, telling reporters in Istanbul he was “saddened” by the images of the American and YPG flags flying in tandem.

Mr. Erdogan said he plans to raise the issue with President Trump during a White House meeting tentatively scheduled for mid-May.

Since the Obama administration rebuffed Turkey’s offer of support to retake the Syrian city of Manbij from ISIS control last year, Ankara has conducted unilateral operations in northern Syria. Turkish forces pushed as far south as the Syrian city of al Bab as part of Operation Euphrates Shield, which officially ended last month.

Since then, Turkey has been lobbying U.S. and coalition commanders for a role in the upcoming Raqqa operation, while simultaneously taking out YPG and other Kurdish militia targets via airstrikes. The most recent round of strikes prompted militia commanders to renew calls for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in northern Syria.

A no-fly zone “is the only solution for the lives of millions of Syrian people to be put under protection against future Turkish attacks,” YPG commanders said in a statement released Sunday, reported by Kurdish news outlet Rudaw. A safe zone patrolled by American and allied aircraft “will help keep millions alive and a stable north Syria is a stable regional situation,” they added.

The Trump White House has expressed support for Syrian no-fly zones, saying the measure could be vital to the thousands of Syrian civilians caught between the coalition offensive against ISIS and the Syrian civil war between anti-government forces and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The no-fly zone established by the U.S. over northern Iraq’s Kurdish region required a resolution by the United Nations Security Council. Any move to create such a zone by the council would likely be blocked by Russia, which is backing Mr. Assad’s forces with air power and heavy artillery.

But regional experts, as well as current and former Turkish government officials warn that Mr. Assad would be the biggest beneficiary of any new no-fly or “safe zones,” arguing the Assad regime could use the zones as a haven and incubator for the YPG or other Kurdish elements deemed an enemy of Turkey — a haven protected by U.S. and coalition air power.


Turkish jets strike Kurdish fighters in Syria, Iraq’s Sinjar

A U.S. military commander (R) walks with a commander (C) from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as they inspect the damage at YPG headquarters after it was hit by Turkish airstrikes in Mount Karachok near Malikiya, Syria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

Reuters, by Isabel Coles and John Davison, April 25, 2017:

Turkish planes bombed Kurdish fighters in Iraq’s Sinjar region and northeast Syria on Tuesday, killing at least 20 in a widening campaign against groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

A Turkish military statement said around 70 militants were killed in the operations inside the two neighboring states.

The air strikes in Syria targeted the YPG, a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are backed by the United States and have been closing in on the Islamic State bastion of Raqqa.

The Turkish raids showed the challenges facing U.S.-led attempts to defeat Islamic State in Syria and risk increasing tension between NATO allies Washington and Ankara over Kurdish combatants who have been crucial in driving back the jihadists.

In Washington, the State Department said it was deeply concerned by the air strikes, which were not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is part of the coalition of more than 60 countries.

“We have expressed those concerns with the government of Turkey directly,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on a conference call. “These air strikes were not approved by the coalition and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces,” he added.

Toner said the strikes hurt the coalition’s efforts to go after the militants. “We recognize their concerns about the PKK, but these kinds of actions frankly harm the coalition’s efforts to go after ISIS and frankly harm our partners on the ground who are conducting that fight.”

A U.S. military officer accompanied YPG commanders on a tour of the sites hit near Syria’s frontier with Turkey later on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said, demonstrating the close partnership.

The YPG said in a statement its headquarters in Mount Karachok near Syria’s frontier with Turkey had been hit, including a media center, a radio station, communications facilities and military institutions.

“As a result of the barbaric strikes by the Turkish warplanes at dawn today against the YPG center … 20 fighters were martyred and 18 others wounded, three of them critically,” said spokesman Redur Xelil.

Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish politician who co-chairs the political wing of the SDF, said they wanted the United States to provide aerial protection against Turkey.

The Turkish military said the two regions it struck around 2 a.m. (2300 GMT) had become “terror hubs” and the aim of the bombardment was to prevent the PKK sending weapons and explosives for attacks inside Turkey.

Designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurds.

Turkish security sources said 13 PKK militants had been killed on Tuesday in operations backed by the air force in the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey. Two Turkish soldiers were also killed when a roadside bomb planted by the PKK blew up in Sirnak province.


Turkey has regularly bombed the mountainous border area between Iraq and Turkey where PKK militants are based since a ceasefire broke down in July 2015. But Tuesday’s raid was the first time Turkish forces have targeted its affiliate in the northwestern Sinjar area.

The PKK established a presence in Sinjar, bordering Syria, after coming to the aid of its Yazidi population when Islamic State militants overran the area in the summer of 2014 and killed and captured thousands of members of the minority faith.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said he will not allow Sinjar, around 115 km (70 miles) from the Turkish border, to become a “new Qandil”, referring to a PKK stronghold in Iraq near the borders with Turkey and Iran.

The presence of a PKK affiliate in Sinjar is also rejected by Kurdish authorities who run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq and enjoy good relations with Turkey.

Five members of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, which are also deployed in Sinjar, were killed, and nine wounded in one of the Turkish air strikes, according to the peshmerga ministry, apparently by accident.

It called the attack “unacceptable” but blamed the PKK for being there and demanded the group withdraw from Sinjar.

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