A fighter with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – One of the final exchanges between former US President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump was reportedly about Obama’s plan for Raqqa – increase support, including arms, for the Kurds. The Obama administration spent months drawing up the plan to defeat ISIS in its Syrian stronghold, but left the final decision to Trump.
After a quick review of the plan, Trump’s team scrapped it, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
“They provided the information, but we found huge gaps in it,” a senior official from Trump’s administration told the Washington Post. “It was poor staff work.”
The Obama plan included providing Kurds in northern Syria with armoured vehicles, anti-tank weapons, machine guns, and mine-clearing equipment, as well as training the forces in using the new arms and urban conflict tactics.
The coalition of forces currently moving in on Raqqa under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is predominantly Kurdish with a growing Arab contingent
. Antony Blinken, Obama’s deputy secretary of state, described them as the “only fighters capable of seizing Raqqa,” in a recent column in the New York Times. But, he noted, the SDF can only succeed if they are properly armed.
This was actually plan B. Plan A had been to rely on Turkey to follow through on its promise to supply a force capable of taking Raqqa. The force that never materialized was dubbed “Erdogan’s ghosts” within the Pentagon, according to the Washington Post.
Turkey opposes any support given to the Kurdish forces, who Ankara deems extensions of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
To mollify Turkey, Blinken advocated providing just enough mission-specific support to the SDF under the condition that the weapons provided are not used against Turkey.
This suggestion was dismissed by David L. Phillips, director of the Program of Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “Syrian Kurds cannot defeat ISIS with one hand tied behind their back. They need heavy and offensive equipment to take Raqqa. If Turkey is concerned about US weapons falling into the wrong hands, the US can monitor supplies so weapons are not transferred to the PKK.” Phillips made his comments writing in the Huffington Post on Thursday.
Trump has advocated for hitting ISIS hard to “crush them.” He has given the Pentagon and his Defense Secretary James Mattis 30 days to devise an aggressive plan to do just that. The plan could include American artillery on the ground in Syria and using attack helicopters in an assault on Raqqa, the New York Times reported, citing official sources.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, has described Syrian Kurds as “our greatest allies.”
Speaking at the senate confirmation hearing assessing his nomination to the post, Tillers said the US must “recommit to the Syrian Kurds that we intend to continue to support you with the capability to continue the advance on Raqqa and then build coalition forces that can contain ISIS if it attempts to move into other parts of the country.”
The Pentagon will present its plan to defeat ISIS to Trump by the end of February. How Trump’s team will handle the Turkey issue is unknown, though Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told journalists on Thursday that “there is no need to be pessimistic.”
Yildirim expects Trump will “correct mistakes staged by the previous administration in efforts to fight terror and defeat Daesh in Syria. What are these mistakes? PYD is an affiliation of the PKK and now the SDF. They are all the same,” he said, referring to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the ruling Kurdish political party in northern Syria.