The US military is shifting its stance in Syria, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Friday, as the program to arm the Kurdish opposition comes to a close and is replaced by increased support for local police and security forces.
The Pentagon is “changing the composition of our forces” in Syria to reflect the collapse of the Islamic State group there and a renewed emphasis on finding a diplomatic path to peace, Mattis said.
Speaking to reporters on his airplane at the start of a five-day trip to the Middle East, Mattis said the shift in US forces would support the diplomatic process.
His comments came on the heels of the announcement last week that the US would stop actively providing arms to Syrian Kurds, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Officials have acknowledged that the US will likely begin taking back large military vehicles and heavy weapons from the Kurds, now that major combat operations to retake Raqqa, Syria, from the Islamic State group are over.
However, it was not clear whether the move to provide arms has completely stopped already, or is in the process of ending.
As part of the changing US military role, an artillery unit of about 400 US Marines was scheduled to leave Syria this week, taking their howitzers with them. Their exodus still leaves more than 1,000 US troops in the country.
Although the Pentagon would only publicly acknowledge about 500 US forces in Syria, there were at least 1,700 there throughout much of the year as the battle for Raqqa raged on.
“The YPG is armed, and as the coalition stops operations, then obviously you don’t need that, you need security forces, you need police forces,” Mattis said.
“That’s local forces, that’s people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back,” he said, using one of many acronyms used to describe the Islamic State.
The US program to arm the Kurds has been a sharply divisive issue with Turkey, which views them as terrorists because of their affiliation with outlawed Kurdish rebels who have waged a three decade-long insurgency in Turkey.
US commanders have consistently argued that the battle-hardened Kurds were the most effective fighting force available.
In a telephone call last week with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US President Donald Trump said he had “given clear instructions” that the Kurds will receive no more weapons, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
The White House confirmed the move in a cryptic statement about the telephone call that said Trump had informed the Turkish government of “pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria.”
US officials have been careful in their description of what exactly is happening, leaving open the possibility that some weapons, such as smaller arms, will remain with the Kurdish fighters in case the Islamic State tries to make a comeback.
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