A rift between Turkey and the U.S. over which local forces will take part in liberating Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to rumble on, even after the top soldiers of the NATO allies held a lengthy meeting in Ankara on Nov. 6.
Turkey has reiterated its readiness to push Syrian Kurds out of the Manbij area in northern Syria.
“The Americans also see and admit that the Raqqa operation will take a long time. We have underlined that both the Raqqa and Mosul operations should be held on a legitimate line. Legitimacy cannot be provided with the participation of armed terror organizations. It requires the participation of legitimate states and their armed forces,” Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Numan Kurtulmuş told reporters at a press conference after the weekly cabinet meeting on Nov. 7.
Turkish and American chiefs of general staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar and Gen. Roger Dunford, held an announced meeting in Ankara on Nov. 6 to discuss ongoing joint fight against ISIL, as news broke that much-anticipated Raqqa operation is about to begin. Turkey has long been pressing the U.S. to stop allying with Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which it sees as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and to cooperate with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“In the end, the Americans will also understand the importance of legitimacy,” Kurtulmuş said. “Until now, we have continued to express our views and works. We tell them that all unnecessary steps taken by non-Arab forces in Raqqa will end up being to the disadvantage of America as well. It would also be against regional peace, a dead end, a wrong path.”
Strategic priority is Manbij
Kurtulmuş also said one of Ankara’s strategic priorities was to ensure that all PYD forces would be withdrawn from the Manbij area in northern Syria, and this concern was delivered to Dunford in meetings.
“We have also made clear that eliminating the PYD from Manbij one way or another is among our strategic priorities, and that Turkey has accomplished its preparations on Manbij,” he added.
Dunford: Long-term plan for Raqqa discussed
After Dunford’s meetings in Ankara, an article posted on the U.S. Department of Defense’s official website quoted him as saying that “the coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa.”
Dunford said he met with Akar in order to coordinate operational planning in many areas, including operations against ISIL in Raqqa, operations in Mosul, and others.
“Obviously as a close ally, we really just want to make sure that we’re completely tight as we work through some challenging issues. The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] are moving south to isolate the enemy that’s in the vicinity of Raqqa and in Raqqa. We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months,” he said.
Continue to work with Turkey
He added that as the operation in Syria continues, the U.S. will continue to work with the Turks and others to determine the make-up of the forces that actually seize Raqqa and hold it and govern it.
“We always knew that the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation,” Dunford stated.
“[The operation needs] a predominantly Arab and Sunni Arab force. And there are forces like that. There is the moderate Syrian opposition, the vetted Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army [FSA] forces, and there is some initial outreach to forces in Raqqa proper,” he said.
“Last year at this time, there were a couple of hundred Arabs inside the SDF. Now there are 12,000-plus. The forces have grown significantly. Success breeds success and there are a lot more forces to use. As we close on Raqqa, we will identify other forces from the area that are willing to support operations there,” Dunford said.
A US liaison officer to work in Turkish military HQs
U.S. and Turkish officials also agreed that a high-ranking U.S. officer and staff will work in Ankara to enhance cooperation. That officer will report to U.S. Central Command commander Army Gen. Joe Votel. The officer will act as a point of contact for the Combined Joint Task Force operating against ISIL. “We want to be totally transparent about this with our Turkish ally,” Dunford said.
The general characterized the military-to-military relations between the two countries as excellent. In fact, he felt comfortable enough with his relations with Akar to call him on Friday and ask “if I could drop by” to discuss mutual issues on Sunday.