Finally, after years of dangerous dawdling the United States has actually begun arming Kurdish soldiers fighting ISIS in Syria.
Weapons supplies had been stockpiled nearby in anticipation of President Trump’s go-ahead, which came Monday. The armament distributions, which the commander-in-chief approved despite fierce opposition from NATO ally Turkey, will enable the tough Kurdish fighters to participate more aggressively in the imminent assault on the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The Obama administration talked of arming the Kurds, who also led the anti-ISIS fighting in northern Iraq, but wilted in the face of resistance from the Baghdad central government and Turkey. More than $200 million in armaments were earmarked for the Kurds and left behind in the Iraqi capital when Obama withdrew all U.S. troops in 2011. But somehow they never reached the Kurds, who were often left fighting ISIS forces that had better U.S. equipment captured from fleeing Iraqi troops.
Now, Kurdish and Arab troops in Syria, working with U.S. Special Forces, will have their own armored cars, heavy machine guns, bulldozers, antitank weapons and mortars because as one Pentagon spokesman put it, the Kurds are the “only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
The arming decision comes as Secy. of Defense James Mattis has ordered changes in strategy against ISIS. Mattis describes the change as moving from an “attrition strategy,” which allowed ISIS fighters to escape current battles, to an “annihilation strategy,” which involves encirclement and total destruction. Mattis has also given battlefield commanders increased leeway in decision-making, which under Obama often involved seeking time-consuming approval all the way back to the White House.
Unhappy Turkish officials were informed of Trump’s decision Monday. They regard the Kurdistan Workers Party, P.K.K., as separatist terrorists within Turkey’s borders. Indeed, the U.S. and European allies also list the PKK as a terrorist outfit. However, the U.S. recognizes the separate People’s Protection Units of the Y.P.G. as an ally with the most experienced fighters. Bottom line: The more fighting the valiant Kurds do, the less potential involvement of U.S. forces.
Turkey made its position clear last month by bombing Kurdish units fighting in Syria with the U.S., dashing hopes that President Recep Erdogan would modify his position since he’s consolidated power.
To mollify Turkish concerns, Pentagon officials said the new arms will be doled out only according to the needs of the upcoming assignments. And they said every weapon would be accounted for afterward.