Posted on September 23, 2016 by Editorial Staff in 1 Top News, Kurdistan
U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Photo: AP
WASHINGTON,— Washington is considering arming Syrian Kurdish forces who will join the offensive to retake the Islamic State group’s stronghold of Raqa, the US military’s top officer said Thursday.
Though the United States has already helped arm Kurdish fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, a similar move in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) is more contentious as key ally Turkey regards the group as terrorists and allies of PKK separatists fighting within Turkish borders.
“We’re in deliberation about exactly what to do with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) right now,” General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The SDF numbers about 35,000 fighters and is made up largely of Kurds, though Syrian Arabs also form a significant component. The alliance has a total of about 30,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Arab fighters.
While the Pentagon has already provided military equipment to the SDF, it insists these shipments have only gone to the Arab part.
The United States is helping train and advise the SDF, as they are expected to conduct the eventual push to retake Raqa, the de-facto capital of IS’s self-declared “caliphate.”
“They are our most effective partner on the ground. It’s very difficult as you know, managing a relationship between our support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and our Turkish allies,” Dunford said.
“We’re working very closely with our Turkish allies to come up with the right approach … and still allay the Turkish concerns about the Kurds’ long-term political prospects.”
When asked by a lawmaker if arming the Syrian Kurds would make the SDF more effective, Dunford said: “I would agree.”
“If we would reinforce the Syrian Democratic Forces’ current capabilities, that will increase the prospects of our success in Raqa,” he said.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said no “specific decision” had been taken on the issue. He did not directly respond when asked if he would support arming the Syrian Kurds.
“I support whatever is required to help them move in the direction of Raqa,” Carter said.
Syrian Kurds have established three autonomous zones, or Cantons of Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin across Syrian Kurdistan (northern Syria) in 2013. On March 17, 2016 Syria’s Kurds declared afederal region in Syrian Kurdistan.
On August 24, Turkey has launched an incursion into northern Syria, in an area some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin to stop the US-backed Kurdish YPG forces from extending areas under their control and connecting Syrian Kurdistan’s Kobani and Hasaka in the east with Afrin canton in the west.
Turkish military operations are focused on Syrian Kurdish forces and not Islamic State, observers say.
Washington regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters of People’s Protection Units YPG as key ally against Islamic State and the most effective fighting force against IS in Syria and has provided them with air support as well as the military advisers. The Kurdish militia has seized swathes of Syria from Islamic State.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were pushed out of Raqa, which lies on the Euphrates River, in 2013, making it the first provincial capital in Syria to fall out of government control.
IS rapidly infiltrated the city, which is strategically located near the Turkish border, and declared a caliphate in 2014.
Ousting IS from the city would be a turning point in the conflict and mark a huge blow to the jihadists.