Syrian opposition wants clarity over attacks by U.S.-backed force

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have attacked armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and sometimes appear to have interests aligned with the Syrian government, a Syrian opposition negotiator said on Wednesday.

Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces take an overwatch position in northern province of Raqqa, Syria May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Basma Kodmani, a member of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group at U.N.-mediated peace talks, told reporters that the HNC wanted clarity on the objectives of the SDF.

She said the concerns included “how they are viewed by the local population, what they stand for politically, and also because they have so far attacked some of the Free Syrian Army groups and the areas under their control”.

The SDF is an umbrella group of fighters from the Kurdish YPG militia and Syrian Arab groups, some of which fought alongside it in a campaign that drove Islamic State from wide areas of northern Syria last year.

NATO member Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has fought a three-decade insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Washington considers the PKK terrorists but backs the Syrian Kurdish militia in the fight against Islamic State.

Last week Turkey’s foreign minister called the United States “two-faced” for refusing to call the YPG terrorists, after photos emerged purportedly showing U.S. Special Forces wearing YPG emblems on their shoulders.

The SDF fighters have opened a major new front in Syria’s war, launching an offensive to drive Islamic State out of a swathe of northern Syria it uses as a logistics base, and were reported on Wednesday to be making swift progress.

A senior western diplomat said that the SDF was made up of almost 90 percent Kurdish fighters and that Arab representation was more symbolic and within the SDF’s Political echelons.

“The big concern here is that if the Kurds are deemed to be launching the offensive on (the Islamic State stronghold) Raqqa then it could open a new civil war between the two communities.”

He added that the U.S. stance of openly backing the YPG but being ambiguous in military support of HNC-backed armed groups was muddying the waters and adding to the opposition’s apprehension toward the U.S. administration.

“We have a player here who is not clear at all on what they stand for, what they want, what their ultimate agenda is. None of this is clear to us,” Kodmani said.

“This creates a lot of discomfort, at least with them, and sometimes outright hostility because they themselves are in a position of aggressing the Free Syrian Army and working either directly with regime forces or to the benefit of regime forces.

“They have indeed on some fronts been working in exactly the same direction as the regime, unfortunately.”

Asked if the problem had been discussed with the United States, Kodmani said: “It is under discussion with any country that can clarify this position, definitely.”

Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by John Irish, editing by Larry King and Tom Brown