Cihan Sheikh Ahmad (L), spokesperson for the SDF’s Wrath of Euphrates campaign to isolate Raqqa, speaks with fellow SDF fighters on the outskirts of Raqqa on February 6. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Turkey is advocating for operations to retake the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria to be conducted similarly to al-Bab, with Turkey backing Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, the Turkish prime minister said after a meeting with the US vice president.
“There will be an al-Bab-style fight in Raqqa,” Binali Yildirim told journalists on Sunday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference after the prime minister’s meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
“We told them that using PYD/YPG elements to fight Daesh was not the right method of fighting,” Yildirim said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the force currently conducting a military offensive to isolate Raqqa, is comprised of Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) and local Arab fighters, including the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), which the United States has backed with deliveries of arms and vehicles. The US-led coalition is also providing air support, carrying out daily airstrikes against ISIS positions in the Raqqa area to assist the advancing SDF.
Turkey considers the YPG and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), linked with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a named terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
“It is not correct to use a terror group to fight another terror group,” Yildirim said. “So the job should be done worthily of a strategic partnership, a NATO alliance. I think they will take this sensitivity into consideration.”
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the local Raqqa population should be supported by the international community, while “Turkey, US, and other elements can give logistic support to this city.”
Raqqa “should not be left in the hands of other terrorist organizations,” he added, speaking after a meeting of the Council of Ministers on Monday, according to Anadolu Agency.
The SDF announced on Friday the next step in their Wrath of Euphrates campaign to isolate Raqqa. “In this step of the move, we will rescue Raqqa’s east and isolate its connection with Deir ez-Zor,” reads a statement from the leadership of the military operation. “By this means we will not only give the people of Raqqa the news of liberation, but also the people of Deir ez-Zor.”
The White House has not yet published a readout of Pence’s talks with Yildirim, but Pence tweeted that the meeting with the Turkish leader was "to discuss strength of the US-Turkey alliance and our work together to defeat ISIS."
The Pentagon has until the end of February to develop strategies to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS, as requested by new US President Donald Trump. So far, the US has relied heavily on the SDF, a force which coalition military commanders have commended for their capabilities and fighting spirit, as they proved when retaking Manbij.
The new US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who met recently with Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik to discuss the plan for Raqqa, was reluctant on Monday to show his country’s cards regarding continued US support for the SDF in northern Syria.
"We are still sorting it out. The allies are working together, they are sharing planning and that's ongoing,” Mattis said to reporters after his first visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad. "The planning is still underway. It's not been all decided. We are working together to sort it out.”
Turkey has been supporting the FSA in efforts to retake al-Bab from ISIS as a part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Progress in the operation has been reportedly slow, with the Turkish army sending in over 1,300 of its own forces in an attempt to accelerate the fight with militants in the city.
The conflict monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday that at least 444 civilians have been killed in al-Bab since Turkey and the FSA began their offensive.