The Trump administration is preparing to stop supplying weapons to ethnic Kurdish fighters in Syria, the White House acknowledged Friday, a move reflecting renewed focus on furthering a political settlement to the civil war there and countering Iranian influence now that the Islamic State caliphate is largely vanquished.
Word of the policy change long sought by neighboring Turkey came Friday, not from Washington but from Ankara. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a news conference that President Trump had pledged to stop arming the fighters, known as the YPG, during a phone call between Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions, and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago,” the Associated Press quoted Cavusoglu as saying to reporters following the call.
Initially, the administration’s national security team appeared surprised by the Turks’ announcement and uncertain what to say about it. The State Department referred questions to the White House, and hours passed with no confirmation from the National Security Council.
In late afternoon, the White House confirmed the weapons cutoff would happen, though it provided no details on timing.
“Consistent with our previous policy, President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria, now that the battle of Raqqa is complete and we are progressing into a stabilization phase to ensure that ISIS cannot return,” the White House statement said, referring to the recent liberation of the Syrian city that had served as the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
The decision to stop arming the Kurds will remove a major source of tensionbetween the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally. But it is likely to further anger the Kurds, who already feel betrayed since the United States told them to hand over hard-won territory to the Syrian government.
Turkey has pointed to the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — a Kurdish rebel group that has fought the Turkish state for decades — as evidence of its terrorist ties. The YPG, which formed amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, has worked with U.S. forces to oust the Islamic State from key areas there.
The Obama administration began arming the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, because they were considered the most effective fighters against Islamic State militants.
The phone call between Trump and Erdogan followed a summit on Syria held this week in Sochi, Russia. It was attended by Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Both Russia and Iran backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and helped Syrian forces to rout the Islamic State.
The two powers, along with Turkey, have forged an alliance that is advancing its own peace plan, in which the United States would play little role beyond being an observer. They have said U.S. troops should leave Syria now that the Islamic State’s defeat appears imminent.