Ankara is offering to begin joint counterterrorism operations with American forces to clear a key pocket of Islamic State territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, but with one catch: Kurdish forces cannot be part of the deal.
Clearing out Islamic State fighters from the northern Syria’s Manbij district — 100 miles southeast of the Turkish border city of Gaziantep — would pave the way for the eventual recapture of the terror group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said during a press conference Sunday in Antalya.
Joint operations between Washington and Ankara in Manbji, a well-known waypoint for Islamic State fighters, weapons and equipment coming from Turkey bound for Raqqa, would effectively open “a second front” in the ongoing fight to drive the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, from Syria’s borders, Mr. Cavusoglu said.
Clearing the area of Islamic State fighters would allow U.S-backed forces to “easily advance to Raqqa” once that key supply line into Turkey is severed, he added.
“We say okay, a second front should be opened but not with the YPG,” Cavusoglu said, using the Turkish acronym for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, the paramilitary unit with ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party.
Ankara has labeled the YPG and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party as a terrorist organization on par with the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other militant extremist organizations operating in the region.
But American special operations units on the ground in Syria have worked closely with YPG units, as well as the Syrian Arab militias under the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, in their push to reclaim Raqqa from Islamic State control.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Defense Department officials are weighing Ankara’s offer as U.S. commanders on the ground continue advise SDF commanders on battle plans for the final assault on Raqqa.
“We are looking at that very carefully,” Capt Davis said of Turkey’s offer, acknowledging the Manbji corridor “is the area where foreign fighters have flowed in … with impunity” into Syria.
Capt. Davis declined to comment specifically on what kind of role American forces would take in a joint mission with Turkey in northern Syria, or when Pentagon officials planned to respond to Ankara’s offer.
Turkey’s offer comes days after American commanders ordered U.S. special operations troops in Syria to remove patches affiliating those forces with the YPG.
U.S. special operations advisers were photographed sporting YPG insignia while conducting operations alongside the unit north 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 for anti-Islamic State operations in the region, said Friday.
The American forces wearing the patch were not attempting to make any politically-charged statement on the YPGs’ designation by Istanbul, and U.S. troops in the country also work hand in hand with Syrian Arab fighters under the SDF, said Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief.
“We’ve been very clear from the outset of this campaign that to defeat Daesh we would need to work with many different elements operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” the four-star general said in a statement Fridy.
The move was a reflection of several longstanding traditions within U.S. special operations units that work closely with foreign forces across the globe, Col. Warren added during a briefing from Baghdad.
“The special forces community has a long and proud history of wearing such patches when they are partnering with forces around the world,” he said. “This is something that they often do, and it’s an effort to, you know, just kind of connect with those that they’re training.”