Photographer: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

Trump Approves Arming Kurds in Syria Over Turkish Objections

  • Pentagon calls Kurds ‘the only force’ that can seize Raqqa
  • U.S. vows support to Turkey to limit ‘security risks’

U.S. President Donald Trump has approved arming Kurdish forces in Syria in the fight to capture territory from Islamic State -- a decision made over Turkey’s strong objections.

U.S. military officials contend that Kurdish fighters are needed in the effort to retake Raqqa, the self-declared capital of Islamic State. But officials in Turkey, a U.S. ally and NATO member, maintain the Kurds are linked to militants in their country that the U.S. and other nations classify as terrorists. Turkey hopes the U.S. will change its decision to arm the Syrian Kurds, its deputy prime minister, Nurettin Canikli, said on Wednesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the Kurdish fighters, “are the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “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 move marks a “new low point” in U.S.-Turkish relations, according to Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“This is creating a major trust issue between Ankara and Washington,” Tol said in an interview. “I would expect more unilateral action in northern Syria” by Turkey, while furthering empowering Turkish voices “who have been saying the U.S. is not a reliable partner and Turkey should turn to Russia instead.”

Turkey’s lira slumped after reports of the decision, dropping more than 1 percent. It traded as low as 3.6231, the weakest level since April 24. The latest developments could further weigh on the currency, possibly sending it toward the 50-day moving average near 3.65 per dollar, according to New York-based traders.

Rifles, Armored Vehicles

The U.S. will provide training to the Kurdish forces and give them the equipment “on a very limited basis” specifically for retaking Raqqa, Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon said in an interview. That includes small arms such as rifles and ammunition, armored vehicles, heavy machines guns, and construction equipment such as bulldozers, according to Pahon.

He added that the U.S. is also increasing support to Arab members of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

“We plan to track these weapons and equipment and do our best to get it back afterwards,” Pahon said. Once Raqqa is liberated, “we envision Syrian Arabs governing” the city, he said.

The plan to arm the Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, has been conveyed to Turkey from “multiple levels in the U.S. government,” Pahon said.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he didn’t know if Trump has personally informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the decision yet. Trump and Erdogan are expected to meet this month ahead of a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Associated Press reported April 19, citing Turkey’s foreign minister.

‘Fraught With Challenges’

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he’s concerned about the move. It’s “understandable but I think it’s fraught with challenges that we are going to have to address,” including how it will be received by the Turkish government, he said in an interview. He said the U.S. depends on Turkey “for a great deal of assistance,” including allowing operations out of the Incirlik air base.

While Turkey is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Erdogan has drawn closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months. The country, which has NATO’s second-biggest military, has worked with Russia on a plan to establish safe zones in Syria.

Turkey drew rebukes from the State Department and Pentagon last month when its warplanes bombed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, including fighters who are U.S. allies. Those strikes “created further frustration in Washington,” which saw Turkey as slowing down the Raqqa operation, according to Tol of the Middle East Institute.

Officials in Erdogan’s government have called on the U.S. to end support for Syrian Kurdish groups including the YPG, saying it’s an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also the U.S. and the European Union. The PKK has been battling for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast for more than three decades.

Turkey’s Canikli, in an interview with AHaber television, said the U.S. was giving “all kinds of support” to the PKK through its backing of the YPG in Syria.

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio

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