By Michael Hernandez
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will take the lead in ousting Daesh from its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqah, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday.
“They and others associated with them will be the force that envelops and collapses ISIL's control over Raqqah,” Carter said during congressional testimony, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for Daesh.
“At the same time, I emphasize, and the chairman already stressed this, we're working with the Turks also, the Turkish military, our good ally, very strongly,” he added in reference to Joints Chiefs head Joseph Dunford.
The U.S. has long supported the SDF, which is heavily comprised of the YPG, in its efforts to oust Daesh from Syria, straining relations with Ankara.
Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian offshoot of the terrorist PKK organization. But Washington has maintained that the SDF is an effective partner in the anti-Daesh fight, a claim reiterated during Thursday’s testimony.
“They are our most effective partner on the ground. It's very difficult as you know, managing a relationship between our support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and our Turkish allies,” said Dunford, who was testifying alongside Carter at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“If we would reinforce the Syrian Democratic Forces’ current capabilities, that will increase the prospects of our success in Raqqah,” he added.
Asked if he supports “arming the Kurds more in Syria,” Carter responded by saying, "I support whatever is required to help them move in the direction of Raqqah.”
Concerns have arisen that if the Kurdish-majority SDF captures the predominantly Arab town it could fuel discontent among residents and prompt potential ethnic conflict.
Dunford said the U.S. plans on having a force comprised partly of 14,000 Arabs to hold the city once it falls.
Daesh captured Raqqah in 2013, later declaring it as its de factor Syrian capital, and using the city to stage attacks within Syria and abroad.