Turkey, Kurds at odds over Raqqa of­fen­sive

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Suzan Fraser and Sarah El Deeb

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.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/GETTY-AFP

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