Monday, December 31, 2018

Let Kurdish fighters in Syria keep US weapons, US commanders say - Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff

by Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff

Such a move would likely anger NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurds as main enemy

U.S. commanders preparing for the withdrawal of American troops from Syria are recommending that Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group be allowed to keep U.S.-supplied weapons, even though such a move would likely anger NATO ally Turkey, according to four U.S. officials.

Three of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the recommendations were part of discussions on a draft plan by the U.S. military.

However, discussions are still at an early stage inside the Pentagon and no decision has been made, the officials said.

It is unclear what the Pentagon will ultimately recommend to the White House.

The plan will be presented to the White House in the coming days, with President Donald Trump making the final decision.

The Pentagon said it would be "inappropriate" and premature to comment on what will happen with the weapons.

"Planning is ongoing, and focused on executing a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces while taking all measures possible to ensure our troops' safety," said Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson. The White House did not comment.

Trump last week abruptly ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, drawing widespread criticism and prompting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' resignation.

The officials said Trump's announcement upset U.S. commanders, who view it as a betrayal of the Kurdish YPG militia, which has led the fight to eradicate Islamic State from northeastern Syria.

Turkey views the YPG as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, and has threatened to launch an offensive against the YPG, raising fears of a surge in violence that could harm hundreds of thousands of civilians.

One of the officials said the U.S. had told the YPG the U.S. would continue to arm it until the fight against Islamic State is completed.

"The fight isn't over. We can't simply start asking for the weapons back," the official said.

The proposal to leave U.S.-supplied weapons with the YPG, which could include anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and mortars, would reassure the Kurdish allies that they are not being abandoned.

But Turkey wants the United States to take the weapons back, so leaving them could complicate Trump's plan to allow Turkey to finish off the fight against Islamic State inside Syria.

The Pentagon keeps records of the weapons it has supplied to the YPG and its chain of custody. But the U.S. officials said it would be nearly impossible to locate all the equipment.

"How are we going to get them back and who is going to take them back?" one official said.

The debate over whether to leave weapons with the YPG coincides with Trump's national security adviser John Bolton's visit to Turkey and Israel next week for talks on Syria.

The U.S. told Turkey it would take back the weapons after the defeat of Islamic State, which has lost all but a few slivers of territory in northeastern Syria.

"The idea that we'd be able to recover them is asinine. So we leave them where they are," an official said.

A person familiar with the discussions on the U.S. withdrawal plan, who asked not to be identified, said the White House and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would oppose the proposal to allow the YPG to keep its U.S.-supplied weapons.

The recommendation "is a rejection of Trump's policy to withdraw from Syria," the source said.

Turkey said weapons supplied to the YPG in the past have ended up in the hands of its Kurdish separatists, and described any weapon given to the insurgents as a threat to Turkey's security.

A phone call between Trump and Erdogan two weeks ago led to the decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria.

During the call, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning over Erdogan's plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, U.S. officials said.

Instead, Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Turkey the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

However, in the first public indication of any modification in Trump's plan, Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Florida) said on Friday that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has been delayed.

"We have been able [to get] the pace of the retreat or withdrawal slowed," Rubio told a press conference in his home state, emphasizing that this was "important."

Rubio remains highly critical of any U.S. withdrawal from Syria now.

"We are outsourcing the fight against ISIS to the Turks," Rubio said, even though the Turks' "priority is to wipe out the Kurds, whom they view as a threat ... [because the Kurds] want to establish their own independent nation in northeast Syria and southern Turkey."

He said that for the past two years, the Kurds "have fought as the ground force against ISIS" and they and their families "could be slaughtered."

Rubio said the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds is "morally wrong" and could lead an entire generation of young Kurds to "grow up hating this country."

He also said that U.S. forces have a small force, "largely an anti-Hezbollah presence," in southern Syria at al-Tanf, near the Iraqi border. The U.S. presence there also protects some 50,000 Syrians, who have taken refuge from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Al-Tanf straddles the main highway between Damascus and Baghdad, and the U.S. base blocks a key route that Iran could use to ship weapons to Hezbollah if its ally, the Syrian regime, gains control of the area.

Rubio also noted the damage to the U.S. reputation in the region that will ensue, asking, "Who is going to partner with us in the future?"

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., South Carolina) has also been a strong critic of Trump's surprise decision to withdraw from Syria.

Following reports on Friday that the YPG had turned to Syria to block any Turkish attack, Graham described that as a "major disaster in the making."

Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff


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