National Security

Trump will arm Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS, over Turkey’s fierce objections

This frame grab from a video provided by the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), shows fighters from the SDF opening fire on an Islamic State group's position, in Raqqa's eastern countryside, Syria, Monday, March 6, 2017.
This frame grab from a video provided by the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), shows fighters from the SDF opening fire on an Islamic State group's position, in Raqqa's eastern countryside, Syria, Monday, March 6, 2017. AP

Despite fierce objections by a key NATO ally, President Donald Trump has signed off on a plan to directly arm Syrian Kurds in the fight to take back the Islamic State capital of Raqqa in Syria, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

The president authorized the plan on Monday, the Pentagon said, emphasizing that arming the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the larger coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces is “necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS” in Raqqa.

“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,” Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said. The heavy weapons provided will be “limited, mission specific, and metered out incrementally as objectives are reached,” she said.

Turkey has vehemently opposed the U.S. partnering with the Peoples Protection Units, a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG that has been trained and equipped by the U.S. under President Barack Obama’s administration. It considers the group to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a guerrilla campaign against the Turkish state for more than three decades and which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have declared a terrorist organization. The U.S. sees the Syrian Kurdish forces as the most effective partners in the fight against ISIS.

[READ MORE: Tense Turkey awaits Trump’s decision on retaking ISIS capital in Syria]

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey,” White said. “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 statement is unlikely to allay Turkey’s fears and frustration, and Tuesday’s announcement could not have come at a worse time, diplomatically speaking. Trump is scheduled to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week.

A delegation of top Turkish officials were still in Washington on Tuesday after meeting with their U.S. counterparts to discuss Syria, and convince them not to partner with the Kurdish forces in the offensive against Raqqa.

Making the announcement a week before the meeting with Erdogan is “humiliating,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The timing is curious…the Turkish delegation is still in town, they could have at least waited until they got on the plane, and for Erdogan to come here and make his case (next week),” he said. “There is a huge question mark over which way the relationship is going to go.”

The commander of the Turkish Armed Forces Hulusi Akar met with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford on Friday, The head of Turkey’s intelligence agency met with CIA director Mike Pompeo. Ibrahim Kalin, a powerful advisor and spokesman to Erdogan, was also in Washington laying the groundwork for the visit between the two presidents.

Trump and Erdogan have spoken at least three times, according to the White House, and at least two of those conversations have touched on plans to fight ISIS in Syria. White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday said he did not know whether Trump had spoken to Erdogan ahead of the Pentagon’s announcement.

Erdogan’s government will feel domestic pressure as it weighs how to react, and “Turkish national pride will build into this,” Aliriza said. Erdogan’s spokesmen and presidential press office did not return requests for comment.

The U.S.-Turkey relationship “will be seriously undermined and damaged” if the Trump administration decides to arm the YPG, Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim told foreign reporters in Ankara in March. “We’ve made our opinions very clear to the U.S. side.”

If the U.S. decides to back the YPG in the fight for Raqqa it will “show that they value a terrorist organization more than they do us,” the prime minister said. “You cannot simply eradicate a terrorist organization by partnering with another terror organization.”

Turkey has not indicated if and how it would respond to the U.S. directly arming the YPG, and relying on them and allied Arab forces to push ISIS out of Raqqa. Turkey is the only majority Muslim country in the NATO alliance, and it hosts more than 3,000 U.S. troops at Incirlik Air Base, a key launching point for air strikes against the Islamic State.

Despite Turkey’s clear refusal to be part of a plan that includes the YPG, U.S. military officials have insisted that they can come to an agreement with their ally.

[With Flynn gone as Trump adviser, Turkey still pressing for cleric’s extradition]

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said during a trip to Syria in February that Kurdish fighters “tell us they are not a threat to Turkey, and I believe that.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis expressed similar optimism on Tuesday.

“Our intent is 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,” he said at a press briefing in Copenhagen after meeting with a group of international defense officials.

“We will work it out,” he said. “War sometimes doesn’t give you all good options. That’s the nature of war…it’s not a good situation.”

According to Turkish media reports, Mattis called his counterpart Fikri Isik on Tuesday to discuss the situation.

Relations between the two allies were already tense after Turkish warplanes bombed U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria last month, and Turkish officials threatened further strikes. U.S. troops were seen patrolling the Turkey-Syria border in armored vehicles last week, apparently in an attempt to deter Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces from attacking one another.

“Unfortunately ... the presence of an American flag along with the [insignia] of a terror organization called YPG in a convoy has seriously saddened us,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

The Pentagon also emphasized that the U.S. military would prioritize the support of “Arab elements of the SDF” and that the liberated territory would be handed over to local Syrian Arabs.

“The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult, but will ultimately be yet another defeat for ISIS,” White said.

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag is scheduled to meet with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 15, his office told Turkish media. He is expected to raise the issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania who the Turkish government accuses of masterminding an attempted coup on Erdogan’s government.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen