Dunford Meets with Turkish Counterpart on Raqqa Offensive

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford talk during their meeting in Ankara on Aug. 1, 2016. (Hakan Goktepe/via AP)
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford talk during their meeting in Ankara on Aug. 1, 2016. (Hakan Goktepe/via AP)

Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford on Sunday met in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart on the planned Raqqa offensive to be led by U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds considered terrorists by Turkey.

In a statement, the Turkish armed forces said that Gen. Hulusi Akar, chief of the General Staff, met with Dunford in Ankara but gave no details on their talks that came after the Syrian Democratic Forces announced with fanfare Sunday the opening stage of a planned Raqqa offensive. Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper reported that the Dunford-Akar meeting was at the request of the U.S.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, widely considered the most effective rebel fighting force in northeastern Syria, form the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has repeatedly attacked the YPG and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month warned President Barack Obama against including them in a Raqqa offensive.

However, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a briefing to the Pentagon last month that the YPG was expected to be an integral part of the "isolation phase" for an assault on Raqqa that would be carried out simultaneously with the ongoing offensive to retake Mosul in northwestern Iraq.

Turkey is also at odds with the U.S. and the Baghdad government over Ankara's demand for a role in the effort to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, from Mosul.

The Turkish government has demanded that its fighter aircraft play a part in coalition air support over Mosul and has also lobbied for a role for tribal fighters trained by a Turkish military contingent on the outskirts of the town of Bashiqa north of Mosul.

In a statement Sunday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he welcomed the announcement by the SDF that the offensive "to free Raqqa from ISIL's barbaric grip has begun. The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan," using another term for ISIS.

Carter stressed that taking back Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, "will not be easy" but "it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL's caliphate and disrupt the group's ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners." Late last month, Carter told NBC News the Raqqa offensive would begin "within weeks."

Carter's statement echoed Townsend's' previous warnings about the terror threat. In his earlier Pentagon briefing, Townsend said the need to attack Raqqa was increasingly urgent to disrupt plots reported by U.S. intelligence against the U.S. and Europe.

Dunford has worked hard to maintain good military-to-military relations with NATO ally Turkey despite the political fallout from the failed coup in July, when Turkey blamed the bloody uprising on Muslim cleric and former Erdogan backer, Fethullah Gulen, who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has been pressing for Gulen's extradition

Following the coup attempt, Dunford was the first major U.S.official, military or civilian, to visit Turkey and met with Akar to assure him of U.S. support and also to maintain U.S. access to the major airbase at Incirlik in Turkey.

Earlier Sunday, SDF commanders announced that they had assembled about 30,000 Syrian Kurd, Arab and Christian fighters for an offensive on Raqqa dubbed "Operation Euphrates Rage." Noting the fierce opposition from Turkey, an unidentified SDF official said, "Our hope is that the Turkish state will not interfere in the internal affairs of Syria. Raqqa will be freed by its own sons."

To support the planned Raqqa offensive, U.S. and coalition bombers, fighters, attack aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft carried out 15 airstrikes in Syria on Saturday, including one on oil equipment near Raqqa, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement.

In an e-mail, Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for CJTF-OIR, told the New York Times that U.S. and coalition warplanes were attacking the "leadership, command and control and resources" of ISIS in support of the SDF.

The SDF has "announced they were proceeding with their march toward Raqqa," he said, "and have done so."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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