BEIRUT, Feb 15, (Agencies): US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday Washington has never supplied heavy weaponry in Syria to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara blacklists as a terror group. “We have never given heavy arms to the YPG so there is none to take back,” Tillerson said in response to a question at a press conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut before heading for Ankara.
Turkey has repeatedly accused the United States of massively arming the YPG, and has said Washington must gather up its weapons now that the peak of the fight against jihadists has passed. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month accused Washington of sending in 5,000 truckloads of weapons to the YPG in Syria, as well as 2,000 planeloads of arms. “The United States says ‘we have cleansed (the area) of DAESH’,” Erdogan said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “So if you have cleansed it from DAESH then why are you still here?” he asked.
Last month, Turkey launched an offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria aimed at ousting the YPG fighters from the border area. The cross-border campaign involves both ground troops and air strikes in support of Syrian rebels against the YPG. Syria’s Kurds, estimated at 15 percent of the population, were oppressed for decades under the regime of the President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez. But they took advantage of the civil war unleashed in Syria in 2011 to establish de facto autonomy in territory they control in the north and northeast. During his two-day trip to Turkey, Tillerson will hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and with Erdogan. Tillerson arrived in Turkey on Thursday for talks with Erdogan, seeking to ease tensions between the NATO allies that reached new heights over Ankara’s ongoing operation inside Syria. A prime task of President Donald Trump’s top diplomat will be to allay Turkish anger over US policy in Syria, a dispute which has ignited the biggest crisis in bilateral ties since the 2003 Iraq war.
The former chief of energy giant Exxon Mobil, who is on a multi-leg tour of the Middle East, headed to talks with Erdogan at his presidential palace after landing in Ankara from Beirut. Tillerson will meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. Russian citizens Five Russian citizens were likely killed in a US-led coalition bombing on pro-regime Syrian fighters last week, Moscow said Thursday, acknowledging non-military casualties in the attack for the first time. “We are possibly talking about the deaths of five people, supposedly citizens of the Russian Federation. Others are injured. But this all requires verification, in particular their citizenship. We are not talking about Russian soldiers,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. At the time of the attack in Deir Ezzor last Wednesday, the Russian defence ministry insisted it had no servicemen in the eastern province of Syria.
However, many Russian citizens are fighting in Syria as mercenaries working for a private military company called Wagner, according to numerous reports. Some media reports said dozens or even hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed in the attack but Zakharova dismissed these claims as “classic disinformation” spread by anti-regime militants. The Kremlin has declined to comment on the attack, saying only that Russian civilians could be in Syria but it did not have detailed information. The US-led coalition said it killed at least 100 regime and allied fighters in Deir Ezzor province in the February 7 attack after pro-regime combatants attacked positions held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Russian military campaign, launched in September 2015 in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping to turn around the multi-front war. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in December that Moscow’s military brief in the Syrian confl ict has been largely completed and ordered a partial pullout of the country’s troops. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday the United States and Turkey are having an open dialogue about their growing differences over the fight in Syria, and are “finding common ground.” Speaking at the close of a NATO defense ministers meeting, Mattis presented a more calm and understated view of the escalating rhetoric over America’s continued aid to the US-backed Kurdish rebels in Syria. Ankara considers those fighters a terrorist group. “I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from,” Mattis said. Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said he has asked that the US end its support for the Kurdish fighters and remove them from a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, that is fighting the Islamic State group in Syria.