ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that as offensive operations against Islamic State in Syria entered their final stages, he expected the focus to move towards holding territory instead of arming Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Speaking with reporters on a military plane en route to Cairo, Mattis did not say if there had already been a halt to weapons transfers.
U.S. President Donald Trump informed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a call last week that Washington was adjusting military support to partners on the ground in Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG spearheads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting Islamic State with the help of a U.S.-led coalition.
Turkey’s presidency had previously reported that the United States would not supply weapons to Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.
Until now, the Pentagon has only gone as far as saying it was reviewing “adjustments” in arms for the Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as a threat.
“The YPG is armed and as the coalition stops offensive (operations) then obviously you don’t need that, you need security, you need police forces, that is local forces, that is people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back,” Mattis said.
When asked if that would specifically mean the U.S. would stop arming the YPG, Mattis said: “Yeah, we are going to go exactly along the lines of what the President announced.”
Ankara has been infuriated by Washington’s support for the YPG militia, seen by Turkey as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and European Union.
The United States expects to recover heavy weapons and larger vehicles from the YPG, but lighter weapons are unlikely to be completely recovered, U.S. officials have said.
Earlier this week, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said more than 400 U.S. Marines and their artillery would be leaving Syria after helping to capture the city of Raqqa from Islamic State.
Mattis said that was part of the United States changing the composition of its forces to support diplomats to bring an end to the war.
“The troops are changing their stance...that includes with our allies who are now changing their stance as they come to the limits of where they are going,” Mattis said.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken