Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford played down the idea of seizing the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stronghold of Raqqa, saying the first job was sealing off the city, during his visit to the Turkish capital of Ankara Sunday and Monday for what was considered to be part of US efforts to convince Turkey to take part in the Raqqa assault along with US-backed Kurdish fighters.
Dunford’s visit came after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which include Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militant groups that Turkey considers terrorists – announced the launch of their military campaign, “Euphrates Rage,” to seize Raqqa from ISIL. The operation coincides with the coalition campaign in neighboring Iraq to drive ISIL from Mosul.
After meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, on Sunday, Dunford said the coalition and Turkey will work together on the long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa.
However, Dunford was quoted by a US Defense Department reporter as saying “We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months.”
The US officials accompanying Dunford said the US plan for Raqqa calls for an assault force of thousands of fighters from the YPG and Arabs whose job it would be to take and hold the city itself. However, US special operations forces in northern Syria have yet to recruit enough Arabs to take and hold the Arab-dominated city, they said.
“[This operation needs] a predominantly Arab and Sunni Arab force. And there are forces like that. There is the moderate Syrian opposition, the vetted Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army forces, and there is some initial outreach to forces in Raqqa proper,” Dunford said.
When asked what exactly Gen. Dunford accomplished on his visit to Ankara, US Defense Department Press Secretary Peter Cook said on Monday that Dunford had a very positive meeting with his Turkish counterpart as well as agreeing to stay in close consultation over the next steps in the fight for Raqqah.
Cook avoided a question about Turkey’s demand that the US remove the YPG from the Syrian city of Menbij, saying: “Our top priority in Syria, working with the coalition, and in our discussions with coalition members, including Turkey, is to eliminate ISIL from Syria. And that will continue to be our foremost mission.”
Ankara announced earlier that it would not participate in liberating Raqqa if the SDF was part of the operation. On the other hand, SDF forces announced that Washington had agreed that Turkey is playing no role in the liberation of Raqqa.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan also said earlier that Turkey will extend its Euphrates Shield operation to Raqqa and has no problem in conducting the operation by itself if Washington insists on including the YPG.