- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2016

Washington’s decision to fight alongside Arab and Kurdish militias instead of Turkish forces to take out a key pocket of Islamic State fighters in northern Syria is the latest sign of growing divisions between the NATO allies in the fight against the terror group.

Arab and Kurdish militiamen accompanied by American Special Operations advisers moved jointly to drive fighters from Islamic State from northern Syria’s Manbij district, 100 miles southeast of the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, a well-known waypoint for Islamic State fighters, weapons and equipment coming from Turkey bound for the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.

“We confirm that this campaign will continue until the liberation of the last inch of the land of Manbij and its rural areas,” Adnan Abu Amjad, a commander with Manbij Military Council, a local militia allied with the Arab-majority Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, told the Reuters news service on Thursday.

Backed by American warplanes, fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit and the SDF say the recapture of Manbij will effectively choke off the Islamic State’s main lifeline into Raqqa, isolating the city in preparation for a final push to retake it.

News of the Manbij mission came a day after Turkey offered to conduct joint operations with the U.S. and Arab Syrian forces to clear the critical district of Islamic State fighters. But Ankara’s deal demanded that any joint operation exclude Kurdish fighters.

“We say, OK, a second front should be opened [in Manbij] but not with the YPG,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last Sunday, Turkish acronym for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, which Turkish leaders consider a terrorist organization on a par with Islamic State and al Qaeda.

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On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter attempted to smooth relations with Ankara.

En route to security talks with Asian allies in Singapore, Mr. Carter emphasized the fact that the Manbij operation was being spearheaded by an “Arab-led force” and that Islamic State operatives in the northern Syrian district were planning attacks against Europe, Turkey and the United States.

“We know that there is external plotting conducted from Manbij City, not just Raqqa, but also for Manbij,” Mr. Carter told reporters. “So, it’s an important objective for us and for the counter-ISIL fight in general, for [all] those reasons,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

That message was apparently received by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who voiced his support for the Arab-led force leading the mission into Manbij, according to Reuters.

Mr. Erdogan’s backing comes days after Ankara blasted the Defense Department for allowing U.S. special operations advisers to wear YPG insignia on their uniforms while in Syria.

U.S. military advisers sporting YPG patches were photographed while conducting operations alongside the unit outside of Raqqa. The wearing of the Kurdish patches “was unauthorized and inappropriate and authoritative action has been taken,” Col. Steve Warren, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said last Friday.

The American forces wearing the patch were not a political statement, he said at the time.

Separately, Syrian state TV reported Thursday that an explosion has struck outside a mosque in the coastal government stronghold town of Latakia inflicting casualties, The Associated Press reported.

The Syrian report said the blast occurred Thursday as people were leaving the Khulafa Rashideen mosque following afternoon prayers and killed and wounded an unknown number of people, according to the AP report.

The explosion came a week after a series of coordinated bombings targeting the regime of President Bashar Assad struck the coastal city of Tartus and the town of Jableh on the Syrian coast, killing some 160 people.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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