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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Mattis arrives in Cairo, says US to move away from arming Syrian Kurds

Speaking with reporters on a military plane en route to the Egyptian capital, the US defence secretary did not say if there had already been a halt to weapons transfers

US secretary of defence James Mattis listens to the American national anthem at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on November 30, 2017. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
US secretary of defence James Mattis listens to the American national anthem at the Pentagon in Washington, DC on November 30, 2017. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

US secretary of defence James Mattis arrived in Cairo on Saturday, after saying en route that as offensive operations against ISIL in Syria enter their final stages, he expects Washington's focus to move towards holding territory instead of arming Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Mr Mattis is scheduled to meet with Egyptian president Fatah Abdel El Sisi and defence minister Sedki Sobhi in Cairo before heading on to Jordan, Pakistan and Kuwait, airport officials said.

According to the US defence department, Mr Mattis' five-day trip to the region is aimed at "re-affirm[ing] the enduring US commitment to partnership in the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia". It comes just over a week after the worst-ever Islamic militant attack in Egypt's modern history struck the country's troubled northern Sinai region, with more than two dozen extremists descending on a mosque and killing more than 300 worshippers.

Speaking with reporters on a military plane en route to the Egyptian capital, Mr Mattis did not say if there had already been a halt to weapons transfers.

US president Donald Trump informed Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call last week that Washington was adjusting military support to partners on the ground in Syria.

According to Ankara, Mr Trump specifically said the United States would not supply weapons to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighting in Syria.

The YPG — which Ankara views as a threat — spearheads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that is fighting ISIL with the help of a US-led coalition.

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Until now, however, the Pentagon had only gone so far as to publicly say it was reviewing "adjustments" in arms for the Syrian Kurdish forces.

"The YPG is armed and as the coalition stops offensive [operations] then obviously you don't need that, you need security, you need police forces, that is local forces, that is people who make certain that ISIS doesn't come back," Mr Mattis said in his remarks on Friday.

When asked if that would specifically mean the US would stop arming the YPG, Mr Mattis said: "Yeah, we are going to go exactly along the lines of what the president announced."

Ankara has been infuriated by Washington's support for the YPG, which is seen by Turkey as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the US and the European Union.

The US expects to recover heavy weapons and larger vehicles from the YPG, but lighter weapons are unlikely to be completely recovered, American officials have said.

Earlier this week, the US-led coalition fighting ISIL said more than 400 US marines and their artillery would be leaving Syria after helping to capture the city of Raqqa from the extremists.

Mr Mattis said that was part of the US changing the composition of its forces to support diplomats to bring an end to the war.

"The troops are changing their stance … that includes with our allies who are now changing their stance as they come to the limits of where they are going," Mr Mattis said.

From Cairo, the defence secretary will head to Jordan to attend a meeting on countering violent extremism in West Africa, hosted by Jordan's King Abdallah II. On Monday, he will travel to Pakistan where he is scheduled to meet with the prime minister before concluding his trip with a visit to Kuwait the following day.

Egypt is among the top recipients of US military assistance, receiving nearly US$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) annually in addition to $250 million in economic aid. That assistance is linked to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and underpins a US-Egyptian security relationship that is now mostly aimed at fighting terrorism.

Following the Sinai attack, Mr El Sisi instructed his security forces to use "all brute force" and gave them three months to restore stability in the volatile northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

Northern Sinai has been the epicentre of an Islamic insurgency for years, but the insurgency intensified following the 2013 ouster of Mr El Sisi's Islamist predecessor, Mohammed Morsi. Egypt's security forces have been waging a tough and costly campaign against militants in the area, where the local ISIL affiliate spearheads the insurgency.