The Pentagon announced Tuesday that President Donald Trump had authorized arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). A US official said that small arms, machine guns, construction equipment and armored vehicles were among the provisions.
The group is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of rebel fighters that Washington has for years considered its main ally in Syria. But Ankara sees the YPG as part of a terrorist organization waging an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, near the Syrian border.
The Pentagon said that the provision of supplies and weapons was aimed at aiding an offensive to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the ISIS group’s de facto capital.
Washington’s support for the YPG, which began under the Obama administration, has driven a wedge between the US and Turkey, NATO allies that often coordinate their military actions in Syria.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli criticized the announcement as a mere continuation of Obama’s strategy.
“The Trump administration’s support for a terrorist organization is not acceptable,” Canikli told Turkey’s A Haber news channel.
“We believe, we hope, that the American administration will say no to this wrongdoing and give up this policy. This policy will not bring any benefit to anybody.”
The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, Dana White, defended the decision to arm the YPG on Tuesday, saying the SDF was the only force on the ground that could seize Raqqa in the near future.
“We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally,” White said.
A US official said several senior figures from the administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, talked to Turkish interlocutors Tuesday to explain the decision.
Mattis met with counterparts in Copenhagen on Tuesday as part of a conference focused on the ISIS fight, also attended by the Turkish minister of defense.
“We’ve been conducting military and diplomatic dialogues with the Turks and it was a very, very useful discussion today,” Mattis told reporters following the meeting, while not directly addressing the issue of arming the Kurds.
The US sees the 50,000-strong SDF as the most effective force fighting ISIS in Syria and has armed the non-Kurdish Arab elements of that group for some time. Syrian Kurds make up slightly more than half of the SDF, according to the US military.
But arming the Kurds’ Arab allies was widely seen as a way for the Obama administration to indirectly, or quietly, arm Kurdish elements as well without upsetting Turkey.