Despite fierce opposition from Nato ally Turkey, US President Donald Trump has approved supplying arms to Kurdish YPG fighters to support an operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State, US officials said on Tuesday.
Ankara views the Kurdish YPG militia, fighting within a larger US-backed coalition, as the Syrian extension of the Kurdish PKK militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984.
The Pentagon immediately sought to stress that it saw arming the Kurdish forces "as necessary to ensure a clear victory" in Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in Syria and a hub for planning the group's attacks against the West.
"We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement as she travelled in Lithuania with defence secretary Jim Mattis.
"We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our Nato ally," White said.
"The President authorized the Office of Defense to equip Kurdish elements" says Spicer on arming Syrian Kurds to help defeat ISIS pic.twitter.com/cJkDJ7ishH— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 9, 2017
The US has long directly supplied arms to the Arab components of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which include YPG fighters. White said Washington would still prioritise supplying those Arab fighters within the SDF.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the equipment for the Kurdish fighters could include small arms, ammunition, machine guns, armoured vehicles and engineering equipment.
Equipment provided to the SDF would be limited, specific to a mission and provided "incrementally as objectives are reached" White said.
Every weapon obtained by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia constitutes a threat to Turkey, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday, emphasising Ankara's opposition to the US deal to arm the fighters against IS.
Cavusoglu, who was speaking to reporters while on a visit to Montenegro, said the US should distinguish between the YPG and their Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, and that the Arabs should be the ones to enter Raqqa.[arve url="http://www.reuters.com/assets/iframe/yovideo?videoId=371581698"/]
"Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organisations and they are no different, apart from their names. Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey," Cavusoglu said, in comments that were broadcast live by TRT Haber. "Within the SDF, Arabs and the YPG should be distinguished and Arab forces should be the ones entering Raqqa."
Cavusoglu said the US was aware of its stance and that the issues would be discussed by President Tayyip Erdogan when he meets Trump in Washington next week.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Turkey. However, Washington sees the affiliated YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against IS in Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia praised on Wednesday a "historic" US decision to arm its fighters and said it expected to play a stronger and more influential role in what it called the fight against terrorism.
"We believe that from now on and after this historic decision, (the YPG) will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism at a fast pace," YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said in a written statement.