SDF fighters in the Raqqa countryside in mid-December 2016. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The US-led international coalition against ISIS provided its allies in Syria with armored vehicles, a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said and a US colonel confirmed.
“The armored vehicles and troop carriers had arrived four or five days ago,” Talal Silo told Reuters on Tuesday. “Previously we didn't get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition.”
“There are signs of full support from the new American leadership, more than before, for our forces,” he added.
Silo said the vehicles would be used to support the SDF’s ongoing offensive on ISIS-held Raqqa, which the extremist group claimed as its capital. The SDF is a coalition of forces including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Arab Coalition, and Turkmen and Assyrian elements. During its campaign for Raqqa, the SDF has also added many local fighters to its ranks.
The US-led coalition has been backing the SDF as a key ally on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Syria, providing advice, air support, and some arms. American officials, however, have been very clear that the arms they supply are to the Syrian Arab Coalition and not Kurdish forces, who are dominant members of the SDF.
The US is balancing its support of the YPG and SDF with its alliance with fellow NATO member Turkey who considers the YPG to be a terrorist group with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Coalition spokesperson, Col. John Dorrian, confirmed that they have provided vehicles to the Syrian Arab Coalition.
"We have provided armored Sport Utility Vehicles to the Syrian Arab Coalition using existing authorities, in the interest of helping protect our partnered force from the [ISIS] improvised-explosive device threat," Dorrian told AFP news agency on Tuesday. "The decision was made by military commanders, and has been in the works for some time.”
The process of delivering the supplies began under the administration of former US President Barack Obama.
A US general commented to USA Today in mid-January that the US air force had been increasing airdrops of weapons, ammunition and other equipment to opposition forces who are closing in on Raqqa.
Antony J. Blinken, the former deputy secretary of state in Obama’s administration, wrote an opinion article in the New York Times on Tuesday in which he hinted that current US President Donald Trump would shift US policy towards further arming Kurds in Syria.
“In the last days of the Obama administration, the Pentagon said it would immediately seek permission from President Trump to do just that,” Blinken wrote. “It rightly wants to take advantage of the SDF’s momentum in isolating Raqqa.”
Blinken added that the SDF needed to be armed adequately to meet the challenges on the battlefield.
“The only fighters capable of seizing Raqqa belong to our most effective partner on the ground — the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mixture of Arabs and Kurds dominated by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia. The SDF can succeed only if it is armed to overcome the Islamic State’s ferocious urban resistance of snipers, suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.”
The SDF is leading Operation Euphrates Wrath to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS. They have liberated large amounts of territory north and west of the city and have imposed a crescent-shaped siege on Raqqa that they are looking to extend eastward.
"The coming phase of the campaign aims to isolate Raqqa completely," a Kurdish military source who declined to be named told Reuters. "Accomplishing this requires reaching the Raqqa-Deir ez-Zur road," the source said.
Deir ez-Zur is located 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.