The United States has begun sending small arms to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State (ISIS) group in northern Syria, despite concerns from NATO-ally Turkey.
The Pentagon confirmed that the weapons shipments began ahead of an upcoming offensive to recapture Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS in northern Syria.
“We have begun to transfer small arms and vehicles to the Kurdish elements” of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said on Tuesday.
The weapons sent to the SDF’s Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) include AK-47s and small-calibre machine guns, Rankine-Galloway added.
US President Donald Trump earlier this month approved arming the YPG fighters, angering Turkey.
The Pentagon said then that the YPG are “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future”.
Turkish officials have warned the US that its decision to arm Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria could end up hurting Washington.
Ankara says YPG fighters are linked to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey, who have been in fight with the Turkish authorities since 1984–a conflict that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 people.
Turkey considers the Kurdish forces to be “terrorists” and fears any weapons sent to the YPG could end up in the hands of the PKK.
In August 2016, Ankara launched its own military operation inside Syria, targeting ISIS and Kurdish fighters, called Euphrates Shield.
The SDF has been encircling Raqqa since November. The US-backed force has now advanced to within a few miles of the ISIS stronghold on several fronts, and this month captured the strategic town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam.
Following the capture of Tabqa, the SDF said it will soon begin a final attack to capture Raqqa. At the time, a SDF commander said forces would begin “entering and storming the city … at the start of the summer”.
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