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Turkey protests against US arming of 'terrorist' Kurdish militia

Ankara says US must 'put a stop to this wrong', a day after Washington announced YPG would be given heavy weapons to fight IS in Syria
Fighters from the YPG monitor the horizon in the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh in June 2015 (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday called on the United States to immediately reverse a decision on arming Syrian Kurdish fighters considered by Ankara to be a terror group.

"I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately," Erdogan said after Washington announced it would arm the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against militants in Syria. 

I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately

- Erdogan, Turkish president 

Erdogan vowed to bring up the issue in talks with US President Donald Trump on 16 May in Washington, their first face-to-face encounter as heads of state.

"I will personally express our worries in a detailed way when we talk with President Trump on 16 May," he added, saying the issue would also be discussed at the NATO summit in Brussels on 25 May.

"We want to believe that our allies would prefer to be side by side with ourselves rather than with the terror groups," he added, saying that whatever happens in Syria and Iraq was a matter of "national security" for Turkey.

Erdogan's comments came after Turkey's deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli said that his country "cannot accept" the move.

"We cannot accept the presence of terrorist organisations that would threaten the future of the Turkish state," Canikli said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster Haber.

We cannot accept the presence of terrorist organisations that would threaten the future of the Turkish state

- Canikli, Turkish deputy PM

"We hope the US administration will put a stop to this wrong and turn back from it. Such a policy will not be beneficial, you can't be in the same sack as terrorist organisations."

The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said: "Both the PKK and the YPG are terrorist organisations and they are no different, apart from their names. Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey."

The comments are among the first official responses after US officials on Tuesday said President Donald Trump has approved supplying arms to the YPG to aid the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa.

Ankara views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe. The United States sees the YPG as a valuable partner in the fight against the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is expected to meet Trump in Washington next week. Erdogan has repeatedly castigated the United States for its support for the YPG, saying its NATO ally should support it fully in the fight against terrorism.

The US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, said on Wednesday he was confident he could "work out any of the concerns".

"We will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border. It's Europe's southern border, and we’ll stay closely connected," Mattis

However, opposition parties in Turkey called for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to cancel his meeting with Trump.

MHP general secretary Ismet Buyukataman said: "This decision is a clear threat and without a doubt a sign of enmity. More than being a diplomatic discourtesy before President Erdogan's trip, it is about ridiculing Turkey."

The CHP made similar demands of Erdogan.

Battle for Raqqa

The Pentagon has sought to stress that it saw arming the Kurdish forces as necessary to ensure a victory in Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria and a hub for planning the group's attacks against the West.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has been advancing on the northern city of Raqqa.

A spokesperson for the force said on Wednesday that US arms and military equipment to Kurdish fighters would "hasten the defeat" of the IS group.
"The US decision to arm the YPG... is important and will hasten the defeat of terrorism," a spokesman for the SDF told AFP.

An SDF fighter stands guard north of Raqqa (Reuters)

SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the US announcement was "the result of the effectiveness of the YPG and SDF in the fight against terrorism".

The YPG praised the "historic" US decision and said it expected to play a stronger and more influential role in what it called the fight against terrorism.

YPG welcomes 'historic' decision

"We believe that from now on and after this historic decision, (the YPG) will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism at a fast pace," YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said in a written statement to Reuters.

Xelil said the decision would "give a strong push to all the democratic forces fighting terrorism and will bring positive, big, and fast results".

YPG will play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism

- Redur Xelil, YPG

It reflected the confidence generated by the YPG's battles against "all forms terrorism", even if the move had come "somewhat late".

Ankara had long argued that Washington should switch support for the planned assault on Raqqa from the Kurdish YPG militia to Syrian rebels Turkey has trained and led against Islamic State for the past year.

But the US administration has been sceptical that the Turkish-backed force was large enough or sufficiently trained.

"We are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey," Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement late on Tuesday as she traveled in Lithuania with defense secretary Jim Mattis.

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"We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally," White said.

The United States has long directly supplied arms to the Arab components of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, which include YPG fighters. White said Washington would still prioritize supplying those Arab fighters within the SDF.

One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the equipment for the Kurdish fighters could include small arms, ammunition, machine guns, armored vehicles and engineering equipment.

Equipment provided to the SDF would be limited, specific to a mission and provided "incrementally as objectives are reached" White said.

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