A US-backed alliance today captured Syria’s Tabqa and its nearby dam from the Islamic State 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 IS.
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, which today scored a major victory against IS in the Syrian city of Tabqa.
The SDF said it had “completely liberated” Tabqa 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.
Tabqa sits on the Euphrates River as well as a strategic supply route about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa, the Syrian heart of IS’s so-called caliphate.
The UN has warned damage to the Tabqa dam — Syria’s largest — could lead to massive flooding.
Warplanes from the US-led coalition have pounded the city and nearby IS positions for weeks as part of the broader offensive for Raqa.
The YPG said the US’s “historic” decision to begin providing it with weapons and other equipment would speed up its assault on IS 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 IS.
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 ISIS in Raqa”.
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 toward Turkey”.