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Syrian conflict

Pentagon may let Kurdish militants in Syria keep weapons US gave them after troops withdraw

  • Commanders planning America’s exit strategy from controversial conflict risk angering Turkey, which has long been a target of separatist Kurdish fighters
  • Weapons may include anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles and mortars
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 9:55pm

US commanders planning the withdrawal of troops from Syria are recommending Kurdish militants battling Islamic State be allowed to keep US-supplied weapons, four officials said.

Three of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the recommendation was part of discussions on a draft plan. It is unclear what the Pentagon will recommend to the White House.

Discussions are still at an early stage inside the Pentagon and no decision has yet been made, the officials said. The plan will be presented to the White House with US President Donald Trump making the final decision.

The Pentagon said it would be “inappropriate” and premature to comment on what will happen with the weapons.

“Planning is ongoing, and focused on executing a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces while taking all measures possible to ensure our troops’ safety,” said Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman.

The White House did not comment.

Trump last week abruptly ordered a complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria, drawing criticism even from Democrats and prompting Defence Secretary James Mattis to resign.

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The officials said Trump’s announcement has upset US commanders, who say his decision is a betrayal of the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been fighting Islamic State in northeastern Syria.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey. Turkey has threatened to launch an offensive against the YPG, raising fears of a surge in violence that could harm hundreds of thousands of civilians.

How are we going to get them back and who is going to take them back?
Anonymous U.S. official

The US told the YPG they would be armed by Washington until the fight against Islamic State was finished, one of the officials said.

“The fight isn’t over. We can’t simply start asking for the weapons back,” said the official.

The proposal to leave US-supplied weapons with the YPG, which could include anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles and mortars, would reassure Kurdish allies they were not being abandoned.

But Turkey wants the United States to take the weapons back, so the commanders’ recommendation, if confirmed, could complicate Trump’s plan to allow Turkey to finish off the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

The Pentagon keeps records of the weapons it supplied to the YPG and their chain of custody. But, the US officials said, it would be nearly impossible to find them all.

“How are we going to get them back and who is going to take them back?” one of the officials asked.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton is visiting Turkey and Israel next week for talks on Syria.

In May 2017, the US started distributing arms and equipment to the YPG for an offensive against Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-declared caliphate that Islamic State overran in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Islamic State has lost all but a few slivers of territory in northeastern Syria.

“The idea that we’d be able to recover them is asinine. So we leave them where they are,” said a US official.

A person familiar with the discussions of the US withdrawal plan said the White House and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would oppose the proposal to allow the YPG keep its US-supplied weapons.

The recommendation “is a rejection of Trump’s policy to withdraw from Syria”, said the person, who asked not to be identified.

Turkey has said weapons supplied to the YPG have in the past ended up in the hands of its Kurdish separatists and described any weapon given to the insurgents as a threat to Turkey’s security.

A phone call between Trump and Erdogan led to the decision to withdraw all US forces from Syria.

In the call two weeks ago, Trump was expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president about his plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting US-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, US officials said.

Instead, Trump reshaped US policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Turkey the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.