More than a week after the Pentagon announced that it had dropped 50 tons of ammunition to Syrian Arabs to support a new offensive against Islamic State extremists, it’s uncertain who exactly it reached.
Leaders of two principal Arab militias said they hadn’t received any arms aid and doubted that any Arab forces had.
“We didn’t get anything,” Sheikh Humaydi Daham al Hadi, the head of the Shammar tribe, told McClatchy in an interview at his palatial compound in Syria’s Hasaka province. “Maybe our partners, the Kurds did,” a reference to the People’s Protection Units, the YPG militia, which, with the help of U.S. air power, now dominates much of northeastern Syria.
Humaydi’s son, Bandar al Humaydi, who heads the al Sanadid militia, said that no Arab militia had received aid “so far as we know.”
“We got nothing, and it’s not clear at all (if we will),” Bandar told McClatchy by phone Tuesday evening.
Another Arab militia commander, Abu Issa, the commander of Liwa Thurwar Al-Raqqa, the Raqqa Revolutionaries, told McClatchy his forces in Raqqa province had not received any U.S. support. He, too, said he knew of no other Arab group that had.
It went where it was intended, to the people who were intended to receive it. Peter Cook, Pentagon spokesman.
U.S. officials were insistent, however, that the ammunition airdrop had gone where it was intended.
“The airdrop, again, was for the Syrian Arab Coalition,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Tuesday. “It was successful. It went where it was intended, to the people who were intended to receive it.”
Asked whether any Kurdish militias had received at least some of the 50 tons of ammunition, Cook responded: “It was intended for the Syrian Arab Coalition.”
Whether the ammunition went to Arab fighters or the Kurdish YPG militia is a sensitive issue. Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, has protested the United States sending arms to the YPG. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, a group that has fought the Turkish government for autonomy for more than 30 years. Turkey, the United States and the EU have designated the group a terrorist organization, and Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that Turkey views the Islamic State, the PKK, the YPG “and all other terrorist organizations as equally dangerous for humanity.”
“Those who covertly support terrorist organizations while not providing sufficient support to Turkey in its struggle against terror must know that they are dragging the region and the world into catastrophe,” Erdogan said.
The U.S., however, treats the YPG as independent of the PKK, though the PKK effectively runs the YPG by naming its officers and setting its policies. Arab forces do indeed fight alongside the YPG forces when an offensive is on, but they have entirely different command structures and while they coordinate, they also operate on their own during lulls in the operations.
The Turkish government called in both the Russian and American ambassadors last week to drive the point home and threatened publicly to intervene in Syria if the YPG advances too far and too fast.
“We have expressed this to the U.S. and Russia in the clearest way,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. “This is an issue of national security for us. Everybody perfectly knows how we take action when it’s about our national security.”
Pentagon statements over the past week have stressed that the U.S. airdrops were directed to vetted Arab militia elements, not to the YPG. But the view from the ground is that this is mainly rhetoric to mollify Turkey.
Hours before the first airdrop, the YPG, at U.S. behest, announced formation of a new Kurdish-Arab-Christian military force, the Syrian Democratic Forces. It included the YPG, the al Sanadid Forces, and Burkan al Furat, a joint Kurdish-Arab group known in English as the Euphrates Volcano Operations Room, which ostensibly includes Abu Issa’s Raqqa Revolutionaries. In addition, it named Assyrian Military Council, a Christian group.
But the list included in the announcement by YPG senior official Polat Can included groups that are obscure or may not yet have been formed. They are the Jaysh al Thuwar (Forces of the Revolution), which consists of minor groups, and the Al Jazira FSA Brigades, which have never been heard of.
On Oct 12, the Pentagon said its first airdrop, on Oct 11, “supported Arab groups.” It noted: “We share the concern of our Turkish partners over the sensitivity of expanding Kurdish control into traditionally non-Kurdish areas of Syria.” In subsequent days, Pentagon spokespeople have insisted the ammunition went to Arab fighters.
But the Pentagon has refused to say where the first shipments actually landed and which group took control.
On Oct. 12, Can, who is the YPG liaison to the U.S. coalition fighting the Islamic State, said his group had received the airdrop and that more materiel was expected to be dropped in coming days. He said he expected the shipment to be shared with Arab fighters.
“Everyone will take weapons. We believe in sharing,” he told McClatchy at an interview in Suleymaniyah, Iraq.
What exactly the airdrops would contain is also in dispute. Can said the shipments would include small arms, including mortars, a statement that U.S. military officials disputed. If the 50-ton airdrop was all ammunition, it would total upwards of 2.8 million rounds.
James Rosen in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria in Tel Alo contributed to this report.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc