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Mattis Seeks to Allay Turkey on US Arming of Syrian Kurds

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, ahead of the Somalia Conference, in London, Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Prime Minister's Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, right, shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, ahead of the Somalia Conference, in London, Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Prime Minister's Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought Thursday to ease Turkish concerns over the White House decision to arm a Syrian Kurdish group viewed as terrorists by Ankara.

Mattis met in London with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on the sidelines of a security conference on Somalia a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the U.S. of siding with terrorists by giving small arms, ammunition, mortars and shoulder-fired weapons to the Syrian-Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units.

In the half-hour meeting, Mattis "reiterated U.S. commitment to protecting our NATO ally" and "both leaders affirmed their support for peace and stability in both Iraq and Syria," Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Yildirim echoed Erdogan in charging that the U.S. is favoring a terrorist group over a NATO ally. The U.S. decision to arm the YPG "will surely have consequences and will yield a negative result for the U.S. as well," Yildirim said.

Also on Wednesday, the White House announced that Erdogan would arrive in Washington next Tuesday for talks with President Donald Trump.

"The two leaders will discuss how to further strengthen our bilateral relationship and deepen our cooperation to confront terrorism in all its forms," the White House said in a statement.

Erdogan has shown no signs of backing away from his demand that the U.S. break ties with the YPG, which is viewed in Turkey as linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party. Turkey, the European Union and the U.S. have all branded the PKK a terrorist organization for its decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

On Wednesday, two Turkish soldiers were killed and 11 others were wounded during a clash with the outlawed PKK in the eastern province of Agri, Turkey's Dogan news agency reported.

In Ankara on Wednesday, Erdogan, referring to the YPG, said the "fight against terrorism should not be led by another terror organization." The YPG has joined with another militia group called the Syrian Arab Coalition under the banner of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to battle ISIS.

The YPG has been in the lead as the SDF presses on Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in northeastern Syria, but Erdogan said, "We want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations."

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that Trump had authorized the arming and equipping of "Kurdish elements" of the SDF "to ensure a clear victory" in Raqqa.

In an analysis, Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the decision to arm the YPG came after a high-level Turkish military delegation argued against it in Washington on May 5.

Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, Intelligence Organization Chief Hakan Fidan, and Chief Foreign Policy Adviser Ibrahim Kalin made the case against arming the YPG.

The Turkish delegation met with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford; Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser; and Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon, Aliriza said.

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

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