Syrian Kurdish YPG will be part of coalition effort to isolate Raqqa, says US commander
AFP PhotoFighters of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey regards as a terror organization, will be included as a part of the force to isolate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)-held Syrian city of Raqqa, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Oct. 26.
Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend also said in a news briefing that the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL wished to move urgently to isolate Raqqa because of concerns about the group using the city - its main stronghold in Syria - as a base to plan and launch attacks against targets abroad.
“Turkey doesn’t want to see us operating with the SDF anywhere, particularly in Raqqa,” Reuters quoted Townsend as saying. He was referring to the U.S.-backed umbrella group established to defeat ISIL in Syria with the participation of Syrian Arabs and Kurdish militia.
“We’re having talks with Turkey and we’re going to take this in steps,” he said.
“The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline are the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” Townsend said. “We’re going to take the force that we have and we will go to Raqqa soon with that force.”
The United States and Turkey are at odds over the designation of the PYD and YPG as the U.S. regards the two forces as an ally in its fight against ISIL, but Turkey regards them as a terrorist organization because of its links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Townsend added that intelligence officials believe that ISIL is using Raqqa as a central planning point for international attacks.
“We think it’s very important to get isolation in place around Raqqa to start controlling that environment on a pretty short timeline,” he noted.
But Arab forces, and not Kurdish ones, are expected to be the ones to take the city itself, U.S. officials have said previously.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has repeatedly signaled this week that the campaign in Raqqa was fast approaching, telling reporters traveling with him in Brussels on Oct. 26 that the start of the operation was weeks away.
“I think it will be within weeks, that’s what I want to say, and not many weeks,” Carter said, adding the goal was to generate and position local forces to start isolating the city.
Carter said on Oct. 25 the attack on Raqqa would start while the battle of Mosul in neighboring Iraq was still unfolding.
The operation to isolate Raqqa will have a lighter U.S.-led coalition footprint than the campaign against ISIL in Iraq, Townsend said.
“We’ll have fewer coalition troops there, less combat capability there, we’ll have to apply coalition combat support in a different way than we are doing here in Iraq,” he said.
There will be efforts to recruit and train forces local to Raqqa, with much of the training being carried out by local partners, Townsend said, adding that the training would likely be undertaken in northern Syria.