US facilitating joint talks with Turkey, Syrian Kurdish forces to ease tension
WASHINGTONThe U.S.-led anti-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) coalition stated on Dec. 8 that it was facilitating joint talks with Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in order to simmer down tensions between the two parties that are both fighting jihadists in northern Syria.
“This week, we’re facilitating joint discussions with Turkey, the SDF and other coalition partners to promote de-escalation in the area,” anti-ISIL coalition spokesman Air Force Col. John Dorrian told reporters in a video briefing from Baghdad, AFP reported.
“Every party to these discussions has an overriding interest in common - this is the defeat of ISIL, an enemy that threatens us all,” Dorrian added.
The SDF is primarily comprised of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey views the YPG and PYD as the Syrian offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which it is in an armed conflict since the mid-1980s. Turkey, along with the U.S. and the EU designate the PKK as a terrorist organization.
The U.S., however, does not similarly label the YPG, the PYD, or the SDF, which is composed not only of Kurdish forces but also Arab militias. Washington has extensively relied on these groups to roll back ISIL inside Syria.
“These meetings are the starting points in addressing a challenging situation,” state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Dorrian as saying in the same meeting.
Turkish and American chiefs of staff, Hulusi Akar and Joseph Dunford, respectively, met twice in under a month. Akar and Dunford first met in Ankara in November and then at the İncirlik Air Base in Adana in December.
The SDF is currently carrying out a campaign to oust ISIL from its self-declared Syrian capital of Raqqa, a major goal of the U.S.-led coalition as it seeks to eliminate the jihadists from territories under its control in the region.
The coalition has carried out approximately 300 airstrikes in support of these ground forces in the past month alone, Dorrian said.
He said liberating territory in northern Syria “has freed up to thousands of civilians from” ISIL, and many of the displaced are heading to nearby Manbij, which the SDF secured in August from ISIL.
“Unfortunately, as they move in that direction, and even as they find refuge in and around the city, they’re being targeted by ISIL’s small arms and IED attacks,” Dorrian added.
A contingent of Arab fighters has allowed the SDF to establish “a governance structure representative of the local population” in Manbij, and a “similar model” is being planned for Raqqa, he added.
There are currently more than 1,500 fighters training to join the SDF, Dorrian said, and more than 90 percent of its graduates are Arab.
The SDF now has an elite force of 45,000 fighters, including 13,000 Arabs from Raqqa, according to Dorrian.
Ankara has repeatedly said it would not allow a “terror corridor” on its southern frontier and that it wants to prevent the joining of the Kurdish “cantons” of Afrin and Kobane.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that Kurdish forces had slowed their advance toward Raqqa because they were worried Turks would attack them.
“Their biggest concern is the Turks behind them are threatening to attack them and that’s what caused them to hesitate to move forward,” the official was quoted as saying by AFP.
‘At least 50,000 ISIL fighters killed’ in Iraq, Syria since 2014
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. military official said Dec. 8 that at least 50,000 ISIL jihadists had been killed by the U.S.-led coalition since it began operations in Iraq and Syria in late 2014.
A relentless operation using planes and drones from a dozen or so members of the anti-ISIL coalition since August 2014 has conducted some 16,000 air strikes against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, which two-thirds of them in Iraq.
In addition, the coalition has provided training and weapons to local forces fighting ISIL.
“I am not into morbid counts but that kind of volume matters, that kind of impact on the enemy,” the official said, calling the 50,000 number a conservative estimate.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the air campaign had been the “most pristine” ever in terms of avoiding civilian casualties, with almost all the bombs dropped so far being smart weapons that can be steered to a precise target.
The coalition tally of civilians killed in the operations is 173, though critics say the real figure is far higher.