Top US commander for the Middle East visits Turkey after Kobane
Uğur Ergan – ANKARAA top U.S. commander who secretly visited northern Syria on May 21 in order to witness efforts to build up local forces in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has arrived in Turkey in a surprise visit, daily Hürriyet reported on its website.
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), made a surprise visit to Kobane and met U.S. military advisers working with Syrian Arab fighters and the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Votel arrived in Ankara late on May 22 and is expected to hold talks with the Turkish General Staff and Foreign Ministry. An operation against ISIL’s capital of Raqqa is on Votel’s agenda, but Ankara is not planning to contribute to the operation, Hürriyet said.
Votel’s visit comes at a time when Ankara has been calling on the U.S. and its Western allies to stop supporting the PYD, which is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but Washington has provided air power and small arms ammunition to the militant group, saying the PYD and the YPG are “reliable” partners in the fight against ISIL.
The PKK, with which Turkey has been in armed clashes since the mid-1980s, is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU. Turkey also considers the PYD and its YPG military branch to be terror groups, but the West has refused to designate them as such.
The PYD combined the self-declared Kobane canton in central northern Syria with the Jazeera canton in the northeast after it captured Tal Abyad and the villages around al-Hasakah province from ISIL early last year.
U.S. special operations forces are helping train fighters in Syria to combat ISIL as Washington leads a coalition of countries in an air war against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
ISIL has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq to create a self-styled “caliphate.” Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has received pledges of allegiance from jihadist groups around the world.
The United States has roughly 200 advisers on the ground in Syria, but no combat units. Votel’s visit comes as the first of 250 more U.S. special operations forces are beginning to arrive.
Kurds play a dominant role in the U.S.-backed SDF, providing the core of the forces that have pushed back ISIL in the country’s northeast.
The SDF has a total of about 25,000 Kurdish fighters and about 5,000 Arab fighters.
Washington is pushing to bring more Arab forces into the group.