February 18, 2017 / 12:13 PM / 6 months ago

Turkey sets out Raqqa operation plans to U.S.: report

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter stands near a flag in northern Raqqa province, Syria February 6, 2017.Rodi Said

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey has presented two proposals to the United States for how to carry out a joint military operation to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported on Saturday.

Ankara has said repeatedly that the planned operation should be conducted by local Arab forces, possibly with support from Turkish troops, as opposed to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) -- an alliance dominated by Kurdish YPG militia.

Washington's support for the SDF, which launched a campaign to encircle Raqqa in November, has caused tension with NATO-ally Turkey. Ankara views the Kurdish militia as an extension of militants fighting on its own soil.

It is not yet clear whether the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump will provide weapons to the YPG despite Turkey's objections. The U.S. says arms provided to the SDF are so far limited to its Arab elements but Ankara says they are going to Kurdish militia and is asking for a halt.

Speaking during a trip to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said there would be "serious issues" for ties with the United States if Washington partnered with Kurdish militia for the Raqqa operation against Islamic State.

"We've told them one terrorist organization can not be used to fight another. I believe the new U.S. administration will take these assessments into consideration," he told reporters.

MILITARY CHIEFS MEET

In a meeting on Friday at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, a key hub for the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadists, Turkish military chief Hulusi Akar and his U.S. counterpart Joseph Dunford discussed the two Raqqa road maps, Hurriyet said, citing security sources.

Ankara's preferred plan of action envisages Turkish and U.S. special forces, backed by commandoes and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels entering Syria through the border town of Tel Abyad, currently held by Kurdish YPG militia, the newspaper said.

The forces would cut through YPG territory, before pushing on to Raqqa, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south.

Such a plan would require the United States to convince the Kurdish militia to grant the Turkey-backed forces a 20-kilometre (12-mile)-wide strip through YPG territory, the paper said.

The SDF alliance, which includes Arab and other groups in Syria's north as well as the YPG, controls swathes of territory along the Syria-Turkey border as they push back Islamic State.

Yildirim said Turkish forces would not be directly involved in combat but would provide tactical support. Both the Turkish and U.S. military would have a ground presence, he added.

A second alternative outlined by Akar to Dunford was to push toward Raqqa via the Syrian town of Bab, Hurriyet reported, which Turkey-backed forces have been fighting to seize from Islamic State for the past two months.

But the long journey of 180 kilometers (about 110 miles) and mountainous terrain make that possibility less likely, it said.

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Helen Popper

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