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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Halt in US support not a problem, but not visible yet: Syrian Kurds

Turkey claims Trump promised to stop arming YPG militia in phone call with Erdogan 

The victory over ISIL in Raqqa has also hit the group's propaganda effort. Erik De Castro / Reuters
The victory over ISIL in Raqqa has also hit the group's propaganda effort. Erik De Castro / Reuters

The political arm of Syria's main Kurdish militia said on Saturday it would not be "catastrophic" if the United States stopped supplying its fighters with weapons and that facts on the ground did not indicate an end to American support.

It came a day after Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said the US would stop providing weapons to the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighting ISIL in Syria, a move that would be a key concession to Ankara as Washington revises its policy on Syria in the aftermath of a successful campaign to oust the extremists from Raqqa.

Mr Cavusoglu said US president Donald Trump made the pledge in a phone call with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday night.

"Mr Trump … clearly stated that weapons will not be given to YPG anymore and said that essentially this nonsense should have been ended before," he added.

The YPG is the predominant faction in an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which led the ground campaign against ISIL in northern Syria and was directly backed by the US-led coalition.

Turkey considers the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state and is designated as a terrorist group by the US and Nato. It sees the expansion of the YPG's zone of control along its border with Syria a key national security threat, though Syrian Kurdish officials have long insisted that their ambitions are limited to autonomy within a unified, federal Syria rather than independence.

PYD spokesman Ibrahim Ibrahim could not confirm on Saturday that the US was indeed stopping its supply of weapons to the YPG but acknowledged that such a move would have implications for the militia.

“It's not possible to ignore the value of international support and it will have negative consequences and we understand the game of international interests and have always acted on this basis,” he told The National. “But when we started our campaign we acted on the basis of our own strength … and so if the information is true it will not have catastrophic consequences.”

“The facts on the ground don't indicate an American withdrawal and the end of support to the SDF because of the Iranian presence in Syria and the lack of trust in most regional and local powers in Syria,” he added.

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The YPG has consistently proved itself a reliable partner to the Americans in the campaign against ISIL, with the SDF seizing vast tracts of territory from the militants in a months-long assault that culminated with the battle for Raqqa.

But as ISIL fighters withdraw to desert hideouts across Syria and Iraq and momentum gathers for a peace process amid disarray in the ranks of the Syrian opposition and a tilt in the military balance towards the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, the US is likely to limit its involvement in the conflict and reduce its support for its allies on the ground.

Analysts believe complete US withdrawal from Syria is unlikely, however, if Washington hopes to maintain a role in the Syrian peace process, as well as contain Iran's growing sphere of influence in the country.

“The US position has always been that the military aid to the SDF was Raqqa specific,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “Raqqa is over and so it’s time for the US to revert back to the pre-Raqqa approach.”

“The better question is what does this actually change?," he added. "The US will remain in country and the discussions are now focused on how to leverage the military gains for progress on the political track.”

While Turkish officials have insisted in recent days that the YPG would not be allowed a role in peace negotiations, Kurdish officials have insisted that the campaign to root ISIL extremists out of their desert retreats will continue — even in the face of a decline in international support.

The wars in Syria and Iraq offered the Kurds in both countries historic opportunities to carve out spheres of influence — at one time even appearing to bring the Kurds in Iraq within reach of independence. Such dreams were dashed last month, however, when a Kurdish independence referendum provoked a crisis with Baghdad and other regional powers including Iran and Turkey, both of whom have sizeable Kurdish populations. Baghdad deployed forces to retake contested areas held by Kurdish forces and the Kurds were left in a weakened position.

Ending support for Syria's Kurdish militias, meanwhile, has long been a point of contention between Washington and Ankara, and Turkish officials strongly protested a US decision earlier this year to directly arm the YPG.

Turkish officials have recently insisted that the YPG will not have a seat at the table in Syrian peace talks brokered by Ankara, which has backed Syrian rebels, and Assad allies Moscow and Tehran. The talks are aimed at reducing violence across the country to pave the way for a political settlement.

“We see that the YPG is gaining more and more territory, almost 20 per cent of the territory of the country, which is a very risky and dangerous development,” Mr Cavusoglu told reporters a week before Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump spoke by phone. “This is what we are trying to explain to our American allies. They made huge mistakes in Iraq. Unfortunately now they are repeating the worst [of them] in Syria.” “This is what we are trying to explain to our American allies. They made huge mistakes in Iraq. Unfortunately now they are repeating the worst [of them] in Syria.”

Mr Cavusoglu said the US had been unable to prevent the YPG from establishing a presence in parts of northern Syria that are predominantly Arab, including Raqqa, despite assurances from Washington that Kurdish fighters would withdraw after ousting ISIL.

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