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Nearing the gates of Raqqa, Syrian Kurds receive US arms

By Rudaw 31/5/2017
Nearing the gates of Raqqa, Syrian Kurds receive US arms
An elite member of the Syrian Special Force partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Photo: Al-Ghadal
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The further metering out of weapons to Kurds fighting in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) alliance to retake the areas around Raqqa has begun, officials from the United States confirmed, as a monitoring group says elite Syrian forces are within 3 kilometers of ISIS’ de facto capital.

"We have begun to transfer small arms and vehicles to the Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces," Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway told reporters on Tuesday.

The SDF is comprised of the diverse, but Kurdish-majority Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), and the Syrian Elite Force, also called the Syrian Special Force.  The SDF is a partnered ground force of the US-led global coalition to defeat ISIS.

“This equipment and the resources will be metered out and specifically aligned with various tasks that they are trying to accomplish to complete the isolation and then liberation of Raqqah,” a Coalition official told Rudaw English last week. 

“Coalition equipment provided to the SDF will be limited and mission specific to ensure the Raqqah force has the necessary and appropriate support and equipment to achieve the military objective of liberating Raqqa.”

Rudaw had cited Turkish media reports last week of arms being delivered to the Kurdish-held city of Al-Hasakah, located about 160 kilometers northeast of Raqqa city and about 100 kilometers west of Sinjar, Kurdistan Region. The arms, equipment and vehicles were reportedly transferred through the Semelka border crossing on May 15 and May 20.

US President Donald Trump signed off on Department of Defense plan to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ahead of the expected Raqqa operation supported by the international anti-ISIS coalition.

“Yesterday [May 8], the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria,” announced Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman.

Ankara has long been concerned that weapons in the hands of the YPG could be used to fuel the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) three-decade-long guerrilla war against the government of Turkey. Turkey had proposed backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the Raqqa offensive.

“The argument that a ground operation in the fight against Daesh [ISIS] would be successful with only the YPG has nothing to do with reality,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said according to Hurriyet Daily News in early May.

However during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s  White House visit on May 16, he said nothing about the Raqqa offensive while standing next to President Donald J. Trump in a joint press conference. Instead, Trump acknowledged the threat PKK poses to Turkey, and Erdogan conflated ISIS with the PKK and YPG.

"We intend to account for them [the provided weapons] and be sure they are pointed at ISIS," then-coalition spokesperson John Dorrian said on May 10.

"The SDF has cleared more than 130 kilometers of terrain in the Raqqa valley and in the vicinity of Tabqa," US Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday.

“The SDF is currently just a few kilometers from the outside of Raqqah city on the east and West as well as Ba'ath Dam from the north,” a Coalition official told Rudaw English.

Photos published by the SDF this week show the city of Raqqa within eyeshot. 

SDF and “Syrian Elite Forces supported by the US Special Forces” advanced into “the northern outskirts of Raqqa city after two days of clashes with ISIS, reported the UK-based conflict monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) citing “reliable sources.”

SOHR added as of Tuesday that forces now control al-Asdiyah Farm and a nearby gas plant were “3 kilometers away from the outskirts of Al-Raqqa city.”

US officials have told Rudaw English that any announcement of the commencement of the offensive to recapture Raqqa city will be done by partnered ground forces.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis has said forces must "annihilate" ISIS during a recent nationally broadcast television interview.

"Our strategy right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS," the retired general said. "It is a threat to all civilized nations. And the bottom line is we are going to move in an accelerated and reinforced manner, throw them on their back foot."


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