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US quashes Turkish claim it will abandon Kurdish YPG in Syria

Turkey's defence minister said that the Trump administration had a 'different approach' to the fighting in northern Syria
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter carries a walkie talkie as he stands with his fellow fighters during an offensive against Islamic State militants in northern Raqqa province (Reuters)

The US appeared to dismiss on Thursday a suggestion made by Turkey that it might not support the pro-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in their campaign to capture the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group.

"If we want the Raqqa operation to be successful, then it should be carried out with Arab forces in the region and not the YPG," Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik told reporters in Brussels.

'Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are'

- US Major General Rupert Jones

"The new US administration has a different approach to the issue. They are not insisting anymore that the operation should definitely be carried out with the YPG. They haven't yet made up their minds," he said in comments broadcast live.

However, a State Department spokesperson told Middle East Eye that their "position on this matter has not changed" and referred to a press briefing given on Wednesday by Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander in the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fighting against the Islamic State.

In response to a question about whether the US would be supporting Kurdish forces in the assault on Raqqa, Jones responded "the force that looks most likely capable to conduct the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF," referring to the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of which the YPG are the main component.

"Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are," he said. "We've seen their fighting spirit, we've seen what they're capable of doing. They re-took Manbij, a very tough fight, and they prevailed in the face of a tough, tough opposition."

However, he added that the "bulk of the force advancing on Raqqa are Arabs."

Arabs and Kurds 'hand in glove'

"The Arabs and the Kurds actually work hand-in-glove, and my expectation is if the SDF lead the assault into Raqqa, that is how they'll operate. They'll work together in concert with each other, but the majority of the fighters will be Arabs. We, the coalition, will be there to support them."

The SDF has captured territory along the Syria-Turkey border as it drives back IS forces, a state of affairs which has greatly disturbed Turkey, who fear the creation of a Kurdish statelet.

With air strikes and special ground forces from the US-led coalition, the SDF is at the centre of a multi-phased operation to encircle Raqqa, the IS "capital" in Syria.

A key decision for the new Trump administration will be whether to provide weapons to the YPG despite Turkish objections. The US says weapons provided to the SDF are so far limited to its Arab elements.

The Turkish government has been generally positive about the election of Donald Trump, not least because they see him as someone who might be willing to extradite cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom they blame for the failed 15 July coup attempt.

But Trump has so far not indicated a specific change on the SDF - whom Turkey has linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - and the militia claimed in late January that it had recieved armoured vehicles from the Trump administration.

"We are working with the US on the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij by the time the al-Bab operation is completed," Isik said on Thursday, referring to a key town currently under SDF control.

He added that Turkey's priority after al-Bab would be advancing towards Manbij and Raqqa.