Turkey and the U.S. agreed during a meeting in Ankara on Nov. 6 to work together on the Raqqa operation, in order to take the town that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been using as its headquarters in Syria, Turkish and American sources said on Nov. 7.
“The coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted on the Pentagon website as saying. Dunford headed the U.S. delegation talking to the Turkish side, which was headed by Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar.
A high-ranking Turkish source who asked not to be named told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 7 that the Turkish side was “happy” with the outcome of the 4.5-hour meeting on Sunday.
“We still have a disagreement over using terrorist elements as partners against ISIL. But Dunford assured us that the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], dominated by the People’s Protection Units [YPG], which we see as a terrorist group and the Syrian extension of the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK, will not be able to seize and govern Raqqa as they have been claiming,” the Turkish source said.
In the Pentagon report, Dunford touched on the U.S.-backed SDF operation “Wrath of Euphrates,” launched on Nov. 6 to “isolate [ISIL] in the vicinity of Raqqa.” He said the following: “We always knew that the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is finding the right mix of forces for the operation.”
According to the Turkish source, Dunford said during the meeting that the Raqqa operation needs the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which Turkey backs in the “Euphrates Shield” operation against ISIL. “[It needs] a predominantly Arab and Sunni Arab force … There is the moderate Syrian opposition, the vetted Syrian forces and the FSA forces, and there is some initial outreach to forces in Raqqa proper,” Dunford reportedly said.
According to diplomatic sources, almost an hour after the meeting in Ankara came to an end the American side sent a message to the Turks saying the statement of Defense Minister Ashton Carter “welcoming” the SDF’s move to “isolate, and ultimately liberate” Raqqa was not coordinated with the Ankara meeting. They said Dunford would make a clear statement, and the report on the Pentagon website came shortly afterward.
Al-Bab and Sinjar too
The ranking Turkish source also said there were two more important agreements with the Americans during the Akar-Dunford meeting.
The first was about the operation to take the Syrian town of Al-Bab from ISIL. The FSA offensive on Al-Bab, with the backing of the Turkish military, was slowed down after a Syrian warning about the use of its airspace on Oct. 26. Since then, neither Turkish nor other U.S.-led coalition planes have been able to operate in the region because of the Russian-made Syrian air defense.
“The Americans had concerns about agitating the Syrian regime or Russia. But they agreed to work on the planning, and hopefully they will give the air support we have requested within a week for Al-Bab,” the source said.
It appears that Akar has informed Dunford about his talks with the Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov on Nov. 1 in Moscow, where the Turks assured the Russians that the Al-Bab operation would not threaten the outskirts of Aleppo and would be limited to taking the town and other areas around it from ISIL.
Another agreement was on Sinjar in northern Iraq, according to the Turkish source. The town was recently retaken from ISIL by Kurdish forces lead by the Peshmergas of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). “But the PKK has been trying to take control of the town and turn it into a second headquarters, like the Qandil Mountains, in order to use it as a passage between its regions of control in Iraq and Syria,” the source elaborated. “KRG President Masoud Barzani has told us that he is uncomfortable with the situation and he could intervene. We told the Americans that if the PKK attempted to turn Sinjar into a second Qandil, it would be a threat to Turkey’s national security and we would definitely intervene. General Dunford said that under circumstances of national security, that would be Turkey’s right.”
He also said the Turkish side was happy to hear assurances from Dunford that the Americans will take back all YPG militia in Manbij to the east of the Euphrates River, as earlier promised.