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US-backed force seizes key Syria city, dam from Daesh

By AFP - May 10,2017 - Last updated at May 10,2017

BEIRUT — A US-backed alliance on Wednesday captured Syria's Tabaqa and its nearby dam from the Daesh terror group, a day after Washington said it would arm the force's Kurdish fighters.

Turkey slammed the US decision to arm the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers terrorists, but which Washington sees as an indispensable ally in the fight against Daesh.

The issue risks stoking tensions between the two countries less than week before US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet for the first time as heads of state.

The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which on Wednesday scored a major victory against Daesh in the Syrian city of Tabaqa.

The SDF said it had "completely liberated" Tabaqa and the adjacent dam after weeks of fierce fighting.

"The combing operations are ongoing to ensure that the city is clear," said spokesman Talal Sello.

Tabaqa sits on the Euphrates River as well as a strategic supply route about 55 kilometres west of Raqqa, the Syrian heart of Daesh's so-called “caliphate”.

The UN has warned damage to the Tabaqa Dam — Syria's largest — could lead to massive flooding.

Warplanes from the US-led coalition have pounded the city and nearby Daesh positions for weeks as part of the broader offensive for Raqqa.

 

'Immediately' reverse decision

 

The YPG said the US' "historic" decision to begin providing it with weapons and other equipment would speed up its assault on Daesh positions in Syria's north.

Spokesman Redur Xelil said the move was "somewhat late", but would still "provide a strong impetus" to all forces fighting Daesh.

But this sparked ire from Turkey, which regards the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which since 1984 has waged an insurgency inside Turkey, leaving tens of thousands dead.

"I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately," said Erdogan.

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

In a surprise announcement, the Pentagon had said Trump had authorised the arming of Kurdish fighters within SDF "to ensure a clear victory over [Daesh] in Raqqa".

The dispute over arming Syria's Kurds poisoned ties between the two NATO allies under the administration of former president Barack Obama but Ankara had hoped for smoother ties under Trump.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said it was "out of the question" for Turkey to accept any direct or indirect help for the PKK.

"The United States and Turkey are two major partners in NATO. We don't believe America would choose a terror group over our strategic relations," he said.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu added that "every weapon that turns up in their hands is a threat directed towards Turkey".

 

'Only different names' 

 

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis sought to allay Turkish concerns, saying the US would work very closely with Turkey over security on its border with Syria.

"We have very open discussions about options and we will work together, we will work out any of the concerns," he said.

It remains to be seen what shadow the issue will cast over upcoming talks between Trump and Erdogan, touted as chance to forge a new partnership between the two sides. 

While the government expressed predictable anger, the deputy head of the opposition Republican People's Party Ozturk Yilmaz said it should go even further by postponing Erdogan's visit to the US.

A high-level Turkish delegation including Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and spy chief Hakan Fidan had been in the US laying the groundwork for the meeting.

According to the New York Times, the delegation was informed of the decision to arm the YPG by Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Turkish media said the three met McMaster at the White House on Monday but gave no details over the content of the talks.

Both Washington and Brussels classify the PKK as a terror group but do not regard the YPG as such.

But Cavusoglu said the two were one and the same.

"YPG and PKK are both terror groups, there is no difference at all between them. They only have different names," he said.

Turkey has said it is keen to join the battle to recapture Raqqa but on condition the offensive excludes the YPG.

Last month, Erdogan said if Turkey and the US joined forces, they could turn Raqqa into a "graveyard" for extremists.

 

But on April 27, Turkish warplanes struck YPG forces in Syria and also hit Kurdish forces in neighbouring Iraq in what Ankara described as "terrorist havens".

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