Maneuvering against both the Assad regime and the leading Kurdish political-military faction — as well as pressing the US and Russia — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that Ankara is ready for operations against Raqqa, the Islamic State’s center in Syria, if others work with the Turks.
“If our allies are really sincere, we tell them: We will act with you so long as we cleanse Raqqa from Daesh and give it back to its original owners,” Erdoğan said before leaving for Pakistan on Tuesday.
But he again rejected any involvement by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, the leading group in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.
A Turkish-rebel offensive has pushed back the Islamic State in northern Syria since Turkey sent in airstrikes, armor, and troops last August. Last week, the offensive captured the city of al-Bab, ISIS’s main position in Aleppo Province.
However, the advance raised the prospect of confrontation with both a pro-Assad force advancing from the south and the YPG to the east. Earlier this week, the Turkish-rebel units clashed with the pro-Assad elements in Tadaf, just to the south of al-Bab. Meanwhile, the Syrian military and its allies made contact for the first time with SDF-held territory, enhancing a possible alliance.
Conflict is possible around the city of Manbij in Aleppo Province, taken by the SDF from ISIS last June. Turkey has urged the US to prompt an SDF withdrawal to the east, but so far there is no sign of compliance by the PYD and YPG, whom Turkey considers to be linked to the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK.
“It is certainly not possible for us to agree with or act together with the PYD or YPG,” Erdoğan said on Tuesday. “One cannot say there are good terrorists and bad terrorists, and we will never try to use one terrorist group against another.”
The head of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, has been in both Ankara and inside Syria meeting the SDF in the past week, hoping to bridge the gap between the two sides for anti-ISIS operations. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was also in the Turkish capital for discussions.
Turkey’s Daily Sabah, close to Erdoğan, piled on pressure on Wednesday morning with an article criticizing the US Central Command:
The US has been providing strong backing to the PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) since the Barack Obama administration, and it will continue to promote YPG terrorism and its child soldiers according to a recent tweet by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
CENTCOM shared a tweet on its official Twitter account yesterday showing the YPG’s child soldiers, saying that they are “ready for the fight.” The tweet drew harsh criticism from certain quarters in Turkey, slamming CENTCOM for its support to terrorists and its whitewashing of the recruitment of child soldiers. It also shared a similar photo on Twitter on Monday showing the YPG child soldiers.
Ready for the fight pic.twitter.com/EcVlhCH2Av
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) February 28, 2017
On Tuesday, Daily Sabah claimed that the US military had stood back from protection of the SDF in Manbij. It quoted CENTCOM spokesman Colonel John J. Thomas:
We’ve met Manbij City Council members in a venue close to the city. Gen. Votel did not give any assurances over the city of Manbij, nothing of the sort was raised during the conversation.