Turkey, Kurds at odds over Raqqa offensive
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey said Tuesday that the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces leading an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa should not enter the city itself but merely help encircle it, a suggestion dismissed by the Kurds.
The dispute between the U.S. allies threatens to complicate efforts to drive militants out of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group’s self-described caliphate.
The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen fighters, have driven militants from large swaths of territory, but Turkey views the Syrian Kurds who dominate the group as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast.
Turkey has sent its own forces across the border to back Syrian opposition fighters and has suggested they lead the offensive to retake Raqqa. The Turkeybacked forces, pushing toward the militant stronghold of al-Bab, have clashed with Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as well as the SDF.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkey-backed opposition fighters captured six villages near alBab on Tuesday and are about 4 miles from town.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters that the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told Turkish officials during a recent visit that Kurdishled forces would only have a role in encircling Raqqa and would not enter the city.
“Wehope that this will be the case, and we expect that our partners keep their Syrians fleeing Islamic State fighters arrive Tuesday at an area held by the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces. promises,” Cavusoglu said. He said “local” fighters aided by Turkish special forces should drive ISIS out of Raqqa and suggested that residents of the mainly Sunni Arab city might not welcome Kurdish forces.
“We should not force the people to choose between two evils,” he said.
The SDF has made some gains since the Raqqa offensive began Sunday, taking over nearly a dozen villages.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior official in the political arm of the SDF, said the same forces leading the offensive will enter Raqqa.
“The campaign will continue to be in that form until it enters the city,” Ahmed said. She said the Kurdishled SDF, as the main force on the ground, is best placed to decide what forces are needed to liberate the city.
A U.S. defense official said that the agreement Dunford made with his Turkish counterpart was not a U.S. prohibition on Syrian Kurdish fighters going into Raqqa. The official said it was rather a U.S. commitment to “work with” Turkey on the ultimate composition of what is expected to be a predominantly Sunni Arab force to seize and hold the city.
The official was not authorized to discuss details of Dunford’s talks in Ankara and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ahmed said U.S officials have not raised the possibility of Turkish or Turkeybacked forces taking part in the Raqqa offensive.
“I think (Ankara) is trying to pressure the Americans to bring in allied groups into Raqqa. We are the main party that decides if we need such troops to be involved,” she said. “We are self-sufficient. There is no need.”
The U.S. Central Command said coalition warplanes have carried out more than 30 airstrikes north of Raqqa since Sunday. SDF spokesman Talal Sillo told the Kurdish news agency Hawar that the coalition has also provided fresh arms, including antitank missiles.
A Raqqa-based Syrian activist group, known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said ISIS militants have prevented residents of a nearby village that was bombed by coalition forces from leaving and imposed a curfew there.
Elsewhere in Syria, two airstrikes killed at least 21 civilians in the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, according to the Observatory and the Syrian Civil Defense, first responders also known as the White Helmets.