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Turkey sets out Raqqa operation plans to US: Report

Turkey says local Arab forces, possibly supported by Turkish troops, should free Raqqa, as opposed to forces dominated by Kurdish militias
Turkey Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a meeting of foreign ministers at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on 6 December, 2016 (AFP)
By Reuters

Turkey has presented two proposals to the United States for how to carry out a joint military operation to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported on Saturday.

Turkey has said repeatedly that the planned operation should be conducted by local Arab forces, possibly with support from Turkish troops, as opposed to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) - an alliance dominated by Kurdish YPG militia.

Washington's support for the SDF, which launched a campaign to encircle Raqqa in November, has caused tension with NATO-ally Turkey. Ankara views the Kurdish militia as an extension of militants fighting on its own soil.

It is not yet clear whether the new US administration of President Donald Trump will provide weapons to the YPG despite Turkey's objections. The US says weapons provided to the SDF are so far limited to its Arab elements but Ankara says the arms are going to Kurdish militia and is asking for a halt.

In a meeting on Friday at Turkey's Incirlik air base, a key hub for US-led coalition against militants, Turkish military chief Hulusi Akar and his US counterpart Joseph Dunford discussed the two Raqqa road maps, Hurriyet said, citing security sources.

Ankara's preferred plan of action envisages Turkish and U.S. special forces, backed by commandoes and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels entering Syria through the border town of Tel Abyad, currently held by Kurdish YPG militia, the newspaper said.

The forces would effectively cut through YPG territory, before pushing on to Raqqa, which lies about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south.

Such a plan would require the United States to convince the Kurdish militia to grant the Turkey-backed forces a 20-kilometre (12-mile)-wide strip through YPG territory in order to push south, the paper said.

The SDF alliance, which includes Arab and other groups in Syria's north as well as the YPG, controls swathes of territory along the Syria-Turkey border as they push back Islamic State.

With air strikes and special ground forces from the US-led coalition, the SDF is in the middle of a multi-phased operation to surround Raqqa, Islamic State's base of operations in Syria.

Hurriyet also said Ankara was betting on securing a Syrian and Arab force of about 9,000 to 10,000 troops for the Raqqa operation, with most coming from among the fighters being trained at two camps inside Turkey.

A second but less likely alternative outlined by Akar to Dunford was to push towards Raqqa via the Syrian town of Bab, Hurriyet reported, which Turkey-backed forces have been fighting to seize from Islamic State for the past two months.

But the long journey of 180 kilometres (about 110 miles) and mountainous terrain make that possibility less likely, it said.

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