Tabqah, Syria liberated from the Islamic State

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 11, 2017:

US-backed forces have liberated the city of Tabqah, the Tabqah Dam and an airfield from the Islamic State, according to Central Command (CENTCOM) and Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).

The operations were “completed” yesterday (May 10) with the surrender of Islamic State fighters in the area.

The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were responsible for the bulk of the fighting.

“This is yet another victory by the SAC and the SDF, our most committed and capable ground force partners in the fight against ISIS who remain hard at work erasing ISIS from the battlefield, liberating their own people and lands,” CJTF-OIR spokesman Col. John Dorrian said in a statement.

The battle for Tabqah is a key part of the US strategy for taking the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, which is less than 30 miles away. Kurdish and other Arab fighters are pressuring Raqqa from multiple sides in anticipation of a coming assault on the city.

The offensive on Tabqah began on Mar. 22 with “a surprise aerial infiltration behind enemy lines to the south of Lake Assad,” according to CENTCOM.

The US military credits the “multi-ethnic” SDF with increasing “pressure” on the Islamic State “from each flank,” thereby accelerating “the pace of the fight,” clearing “the final neighborhoods of the city,” and isolating Tabqah Dam before the jihadists were finally forced to surrender.

“Approximately 70 ISIS fighters conceded to the SDF’s terms, which included the dismantling of IEDs surrounding the dam, the surrender of all ISIS heavy weapons, and the forced withdrawal of all remaining fighters from Tabqah City,” CENTCOM’s statement reads.

Senior Islamic State leaders and foreign fighters relocated to Tabqah

Over the course of the past year, the so-called caliphate had moved key leaders, foreign fighters and operatives responsible for planning attacks abroad to Tabqah. The US military says the Islamic State had used the city as a “a key coordination hub” to “plan local operations and external attacks against the West” since 2013. Additional “foreign fighters and external attack planning” operatives were moved to the area after the Islamic State suffered losses in northern Syria. The group was hoping to keep these jihadists safe from the coalition’s airstrikes, but a number of them were hunted down.

CJTF-OIR announced late last year that Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti, a former member of the Islamic State’s “War Committee,” was killed in an airstrike near Tabqah Dam on Dec. 26.

Kuwaiti had been “involved” in the group’s “retaking of Palmyra” from Bashar al Assad’s forces “before being reassigned to Tabqah to try to improve” the Islamic State’s “defenses” against the SDF. Kuwaiti “was involved in the use of suicide vehicles, IEDs and chemical weapons against the SDF.” CJTF-OIR assessed that his death would “degrade” the organization’s defense of Raqqa, as well as the jihadists’ ability to “launch external operations against the West.”

The Islamic State’s Rumiyah (“Rome”) magazine reported earlier this year that one of the group’s chief propagandists, Ahmad Abousamra (also known as Abu Sulayman al Shami), was killed in an airstrike near Tabqah in January.

Abousamra, a US citizen who was long wanted by the FBI, rose through the Islamic State’s media ranks to become the chief editor of Dabiq, an English-language online magazine that frequently called for attacks in the West. Rumiyah is the successor publication to Dabiq. Abousamra was also a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report: How a US citizen became a key player in the Islamic State’s rivalry with al Qaeda.]

Another senior Islamic State figure, Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili (also known as Abu Omar al Shishani), oversaw an Islamic State prison in Tabqah for a time. The facility may have “held foreign hostages,” according to the US Treasury Department.

Batirashvili served as one of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s most senior military commanders. In mid-2013, he was appointed the head of the so-called caliphate’s forces in northern Syria, including Raqqa province. He oversaw the forces that battled Bashar al Assad’s regime for control of the Tabqah military airbase in 2014. Batirashvili was killed south of Mosul, Iraq last July.

Possible “humanitarian disaster” averted

On Mar. 27, just days after the surprise assault on Tabqah, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency released an alarming statement. It was titled, “Maintenance Teams Still Unable to Bring Necessary Tools and Equipment to Tabqah Dam Despite Risk of Collapse.” Amaq alleged that the dam was “completely out of service” due to airstrikes and “water levels are continuing to rise due to flood gates being closed, which could lead to the dam’s collapse at any moment.” Amaq also published photos depicting the damage supposedly done to the dam’s control room by coalition bombings.

The dam didn’t collapse, and Amaq may have been exaggerating.

But CENTCOM says the capture of the dam “prevented a potential humanitarian disaster and ensured local citizens will continue to receive the dam’s basic services.” CENTCOM adds that the SDF accepted the Islamic State’s “surrender of the city to protect innocent civilians and to protect the Tabqah dam infrastructure which hundreds of thousands of Syrians rely on for water, agriculture, and electricity.”

Partner forces make up main ground force

US military officials are trumpeting the fall of Tabqah as further evidence of the efficacy of America’s battlefield partners.

“The SDF’s success against ISIS demonstrates the power of working by, with and through local partner forces fighting ISIS, among their own people, in their own territory,” Col. Dorrian, the CJTF-OIR spokesman, said. “The SDF, fighting to liberate their own people and lands, have freed more than 8,000 square kilometers of Syria from ISIS since November.”

But America’s choice of allies has not been without controversy.

The Kurdish YPG (or People’s Defense Units) is part of the American-backed SDF. The YPG and its female brigade, the YPJ (or Women’s Protection Units), are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government. Turkey objects to the partnership, as the PKK is opposed to the Turkish government. US officials argue that the YPG is distinct from the PKK. But that line is not at all clear. Even Col. Dorrian slipped up earlier this month by referring to the PKK, when he meant the YPG. The US has downplayed this complication because the YPG has long been on the frontline in the battle against the Islamic State’s jihadists.

The YPG advertised its role in the battle for Tabqah on its official website and social media. Some of the video clips and pictures show the YPJ’s female fighters patrolling streets, a YPG flag being raised in the area, and residents celebrating the jihadists’ expulsion.

The Islamic State captured the Taqbah military airbase from forces loyal to Bashar al Assad in Aug. 2014. The fall of the airbase consolidated the group’s grip on the province of Raqqa. The third edition of Abousamra’s Dabiq magazine, released in Sept. 2014, celebrated the “major conquest.” Dabiq bragged that with the fall of the airbase, Raqqa had become the first “wilayah” to be “completely rid of the Nusayrī army” – a derogatory reference to Assad’s forces. One graphic image showed Assad’s soldiers being shot in the head from behind. Another photo showed the corpse of an Assad regime “officer” who had allegedly “boasted on television of false victories.”

The Syrian regime and Russia bombed Islamic State fighters in the area as recently as last year. In June 2016, Amaq released a video purporting to show Russia’s use of cluster bombs during airstrikes on Tabqah city. Amaq also claimed that Assad’s fighters had suffered casualties south of Tabqah at the Thawrah oilfield.

But ultimately it wasn’t the Syrian regime, which suffers from manpower shortages, or its Russian ally that ejected the Islamic State from the area. That was left to American-backed forces.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

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Trump Defies Turkey, Approves Heavy Weapons for Syrian Kurds

AFP

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.

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Russia’s 4 Syrian ceasefire zones – Kremlin spin

Russian Gen. Sergei Rudskoy

DEBKAfile, May 6, 2017:

The widely reported Kremlin plan to set up four safe or “de-escalation” zones, that were supposed to have gone into effect in Syria Friday night, May 5, turns out to be nothing but a propaganda ploy. The spin factor leaps to the eye from the small print of the plan that was released by Gen. Sergey Rudskoy, head of Russian General Staffs Operations Division, Friday night.  He outlined four steps that may never take off

1. Observation points will be set up to monitor the ceasefire (in the four designated de-escalation zones).

So when the putative safe zones were to have started operating Friday night, there were no observation points to monitor them.

2. The boundaries of the zones will be determined in accordance with the observation points.

This means that the zones don’t exist.

3. By June 4, a working team made up of officers of the three guarantors, Russia, Turkey and Iran, will be created to administer the observation points.

Who can tell what will happen in Syrian in a month’s time.

4. Only after the observation groups of the three sponsor-nations’ armies finish mapping the ceasefire zones can it be determined whether the plan is doable or not.

Still no zones.
The Russian propaganda machine worked overtime this weekend to convince the Western media that the ceasefire zones plan had won the support of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The truth is that US President Donald Trump did not commit himself one way or another when he talked on the phone with President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, May 2, although most of their conversation was devoted to Syria, rather than the North Korean crisis. There was no agreement between them on any Syrian issue, except for a decision that American and Russian forces in the war-torn country would stay out of each other’s way.
In sum, Moscow’s ceasefire zones plan, though effectively propagandized, has changed nothing in Syria’s bloody predicament.

With so much still up in the air, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked by phone Friday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after which he gave the following statement: “The secretary looks forward to further meetings with the foreign minister to discuss the respective roles of the United States and Russia in de-escalating the conflict and supporting the talks in Geneva to move the political solution forward.”

Tillerson made no mention of any safe zones which Moscow claims to be setting up with Ankara and Tehran, or of the Russian-sponsored Syrian peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Rebel groups, supposed to be holding a dialogue with Assad regime representatives, walked out of its fourth round last week. And the Trump administration appears unwilling to throw its support behind the Russian-sponsored peace initiative, preferring to stand solidly behind the UN-sponsored Geneva process.

Turkey and Iran, the other two “sponsors” of the Astana framework, and putative “guarantors” of the safe zones, are strangely silent about the roles assigned them by the Kremlin. And no wonder. As rivals in the Syrian arena, their forces are ranged against each other in both Syria and Iraq. It is hard to see them working shoulder to shoulder alongside Russian officers to monitor safety zones which are still pie in the sky.

The situation at the moment is this: In Iraq, Turkish and Iranian troops – essentially pro-Iranian militias under the command of Revolutionary Guards officers – glare at each other across two warfronts, Tel Afar and Sinjar. In Syria, each of their armies is poised to grab Al-Bab in the Aleppo province.

The only real change in Syria’s military situation is a surreptitious one, which may present a fresh, wide-ranging peril: The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah has agreed to place the 8,000 members fighting in Syria for Bashar Assad under direct Iranian command. This is part of a radical reorganization of all the military outfits Iran has deployed in Syria, whereby all the Shiite militias including Hizballah fall henceforth directly under a single centralized Iranian command.
This fundamental shift in the military balance in Syria was initiated by Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Suleiman, commander of Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. He convinced supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that there was no other way to safeguard Iran’s military supremacy in the Syrian war arena, guarantee a land bridge to Lebanon, or mobilize tactically for future confrontations with Israel.
The Syrian ruler also submitted to this step. Therefore, Hizballah and the Shiite militias will henceforth operate under the orders of the Iranian military mission which has its seat at Syrian High Command Headquarters in Damascus.

This “reorganization” opens the door for Hizballah officers to assume Iranian army uniforms and act as “ceasefire monitors” if Russia’s fictitious safe zones ever get off the ground.

US warplanes among those barred from flying over Syria’s ‘safe zones’ in proposal

May 4: Russian lead negotiator on Syria Alexander Lavrentyev, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan (Reuters)

Fox News, May 5, 2017:

U.S. and coalition military planes will not be allowed to fly over designated “safe zones” in Syria under a Russian proposal that has the backing of Iran and Turkey, reports said Friday.

The reports did not indicate how the airspace would be enforced and the overall proposal appeared to be a work in progress.

Russian official Alexander Lavrentyev suggested in peace talks on Friday that all military aircraft — including Russian and Turkish — would also be barred from the designated zones. Under the Russian plan, President Bashar Assad’s air force would halt flights over the safe zones.

Lavrentyev, whose remarks were carried by Russian news agencies, said “the operation of aviation in the de-escalation zones, especially of the forces of the international coalition, is absolutely not envisaged, either with notification or without. This question is closed.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he had a “very good” conversation over the phone with President Trump, and that his U.S. counterpart agreed to a proposal to establish Syrian safe zones to protect civilians in the war-torn country.

But the White House only confirmed that the two leaders discussed the safe zones, not that there were any agreements.

Reuters reported that countries such as Iran and Turkey have agreed on Moscow’s proposal for the “de-escalation zones.” The United Nations also welcomed the plan.

The proposal presented to the rebels in Astana delineates four zones in Syria where front lines between the government and rebels would be frozen and fighting halted, according to a statement made by the rebels. The four zones include areas in the provinces of Idlib and Homs, the eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus, and an area in the south of the country.

The zones, according to the document received by rebels, would be monitored by international observers and allow for the voluntary return of refugees.

Late Wednesday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Damascus is “fully backing” the Russian initiative on the four cease-fire areas, according to the state-run SANA news agency.

But Ahmed Ramadan, an opposition representative, told The Associated Press that rebels requested a written answer on a number of questions, including why the cease-fire would only be in effect in the four areas instead of a nationwide truce.

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Trump-Putin call focuses on Syria, security zones

DEBKAfile, May 2, 2017:

One of the most consequential exchanges on the disposition of Syria’s border lands with Israel and Jordan – and the future of the Syrian conflict at large – took place between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Tuesday, May 2. The call took place when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting Putin at his Black Sea residence in Sochi.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal that the two presidents focused strongly on an effort to agree on how de-escalate the Syrian conflict now in its sixth year and bring it to an end. The Russian leader proposed drawing armistice lines between the warring sides under the guarantee of a special Russian military mechanism. The Americans have not released any ideas, but they are believed to be contemplating establishing safety zones barred to the Syrian air force. One of those zones would be marked out in the south on Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan.

The Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the Iranian military-political command and Hizballah are resisting US feelers for the introduction of these safe zones, regarding the plan as a ploy hatched by the Saudis, Israelis and Jordanians to take control of South Syria by engaging local Syrian rebel groups as their vehicle. Damascus, Tehran and Beirut believe that if they allow the scheme to go forward without resistance, it will be the start of similar off-limits enclaves in other parts of Syria, and the country will quickly fall apart into self-ruling segments.

That is why late last month, Syrian army units, the Shiite militias under Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers’ command and Hizballah combined their resources to push against the local Syrian rebels of the South in the regions of the borders with Israel and Jordan.
It is doubtful whether Trump and Putin were able to work out something tangible in their first phone conversation since the US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian Shayrat air base on April 7. The Russian president used the shock of that event to cultivate closer ties with the Syrian ruler and strengthen his missile defenses, in case of an American repeat attack or Israeli air strikes on military targets in Syria.
At the same time, Putin becamed more careful about infringing on parts of Syria deemed to be under American influence, especially the Kurdish enclaves.
The US president was also careful not to direct personal attacks on Putin or criticize Russia’s military involvement in Syria, merely expressing the hope that at some point the two powers could reach an understanding to end the vicious conflict.
When reporters in Sochi asked the Russian president if he thought he could sell his plan to Assad, he replied: “A ceasefire is the first priority and cooperation with Washington is critical.”

At the same time, Russia operates in tandem with Turkey and Iran and was trying to “create the conditions for political cooperation on all sides,” he said.

Clearly, Putin was making the point that, just as the US deals with the Syrian issue in alignment with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan, Russia coordinates its actions with Iran and Turkey. Since both presidents are similarly weighed down by their allies, the road to a consensus between Washington and Moscow is destined to be long with many convolutions. Therefore, the tension on the Israeli and Jordanian borders of southern Syria will continue to escalate before it abates.

Report: Foreign Fighters Abandon Islamic State, Flee to Turkey

Sipa via AP Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, April 27, 2017:

Islamic State militants are reportedly abandoning ISIS as it loses territory and fleeing to Turkey, with foreign recruits leading the retreat.

According to the UK Guardianat least two British nationals and an American citizen have joined the “exodus” from the Islamic State. The American is 46-year-old Kary Paul Kleman of Florida, who surrendered to Turkish border police last week, bringing a Syrian wife and two widows of slain ISIS fighters with him.

The British defectors claimed they were not fighters but settled in Syria to become citizens of the “caliphate.” Kleman moved first to Egypt and Dubai after converting to Islam, then claims to have brought his family to Syria to assist with a “humanitarian effort” that turned out to be a “scam.” He was reportedly trying to reach the U.S. embassy in Turkey when he was arrested by border police.

CNN spoke with a smuggler who said Kleman contacted family members, the CIA, and possibly the FBI to arrange his exit from the Islamic State but apparently didn’t get the help he wanted, so he made a run for the Turkish border on his own.

Turkish prosecutors could seek up to 15-year sentences for these refugees from the Islamic State, while the U.K. could press terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. It is also possible the authorities will decide the returnees are not a threat.

The Guardian sounds an alarming note about foreign recruits fleeing the collapsing Islamic State and seeking to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries, to take revenge for the defeat of ISIS. There may already be up to 250 such trained terrorist operatives in Europe. Foreign recruits for other extremist organizations active in the Syrian civil war, such as al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, are also a concern.

Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College pointed out to the Guardian that ISIS “projected a narrative of momentum and success” to recruits, and it’s impossible to maintain that narrative when so much of the caliphate’s territory has been recaptured.

The Daily Star quotes Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John Dorrian of the U.S. Air Force warning that the threat of foreign recruits making it back to their home countries, with the motivation and training to conduct terrorist attacks, cannot be dismissed.

“This is why there has been such a significant effort to isolate places like Raqqa to limit the ability of the enemy to depart Syria and move up into Europe,” Dorrian said.

A knockout punch has not yet been landed against the Islamic State’s Iraqi capital of Mosul. The Independent relates the horrifying story of ISIS militants who disguised themselves as Iraqi officials, drew a crowd of men, women, and children in central Mosul to greet them, and then shot them to “make it clear the area was still under enemy control,” as a Joint Operations Command official put it.

Various estimates suggest there are up to 5,000 foreign recruits still alive in the Islamic State, potentially preparing to return to Europe and the United States.

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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.

“NEW QANDIL”

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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