U.S. anti-IS envoy visits Kurdish fighters in Syrian Kurdistan

US diplomat Brett McGurk with Syrian Kurds

U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State Brett McGurk (L) with Kurdish YPG commander in Syrian Kurdistan. Photo: McGurk’s twitter

KOBANI, Syrian Kurdistan,— A delegation including senior US diplomat Brett McGurk visits Syrian Kurdistan and met officials from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units YPG fighting the Islamic State jihadist group inside Syria, Kurdish sources said Sunday.

The weekend visit to the war-torn country — confirmed by a US official — appeared to be the first by a senior US government figure in Syrian Kurdistan (northern Syria).

McGurk, who is US President Barack Obama’s envoy to an international coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq, was accompanied by French and British officials, the sources told AFP.

U.S. military ties with the Syrian Kurds have grown deeper despite the concerns of NATO ally Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish PYD party as a terrorist group because of its links to the PKK, which is waging an insurgency in Turkey.

McGurk, who said he was accompanied by U.S. Defense Department officials, was received by Kurdish officials, including the prime minister of one of three autonomous Kurdish regions, or cantons, the Syrian Kurds have set up in Syrian Kurdistan (northern Syria).

At the meeting with the Kurdish officials, McGurk said “what you are now in the self-management, is your right, because you fought against the extremist of IS group, and expelled them from these areas, and future Syria will be democratic and will respect the rights of the Kurdish people, and the new Constitution of Syria will ensure that.” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

In a statement posted on YouTube, Akram Hasso, head of the Kurdish-led administration of Jazeera canton, said McGurk’s delegation was 17 strong and included representatives of France and Britain.

PYD leader Saleh Muslim played down the visit’s political significance. “He is a military man, a man concerned with fighting terrorism more than politics,” Muslim told Reuters.

But “it may have an indirect political impact”, he added.

One Kurdish source close to the meeting said a “high-level military delegation from the international coalition (against IS),” met Saturday with senior members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.

The source said the talks in the Kurdish town of Kobani covered “military plans” for the fight against IS.

“These meetings will have an impact on many developments that will be seen in the area,” he added, without providing further details.

The talks were confirmed by a second Kurdish source on the ground and reported in Kurdish media.

A US official said that McGurk visited Syria at the weekend to take stock of the campaign against IS extremists, but gave few other details.

“This visit and the discussions he had are in keeping with the special envoy’s efforts to continue looking for ways to increase coalition pressure on ISIL,” said the official, using an alternative acronym for the jihadists.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed in October 2015, from the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with smaller Arab and Christian militias in a coalition intended to take on IS.

Senior US diplomat Brett McGurk with Kurdish official in Syrian Kurdistan

Senior US diplomat Brett McGurk (C) shakes hands with with Kurdish officials in Syrian Kurdistan. Photo: McGurk’s twitter

The YPG, which the U.S. and Russia consider an ally in the fight against Islamic State, is the most effective group fighting IS in Syria, as the Kurdish militia has seized swathes of Syria from Islamic State.

Syrian Kurds have established three autonomous zones, or “cantons” in 2013, and Kurdish government across Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).

Nearly 3 million Kurds live in Syrian Kurdistan.

Geneva talks

The meetings come after the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was excluded from new peace talks in Geneva being organised by the UN.

Despite cooperation between the US-led coalition and the YPG in the fight against IS, the Kurdish militia and its political branch face fierce opposition from neighbouring Turkey.

Ankara considers the PYD and YPG to be affiliates of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency in Turkey, while Syria’s opposition accuses them of being too close to the regime in Damascus.

But the coalition has worked closely with the YPG since it launched air strikes in Syria in September 2014, expanding a campaign that began in Iraq a month earlier.

And that support has continued since the formation of the SDF last October, with US-led air support helping the alliance seize a key dam from IS last month.

US-based Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said McGurk’s visit appeared intended to assuage the Kurds after their exclusion from the Geneva talks.

“The goal is to ease Kurdish anger and give them reassurances that they are not being ignored and that they have a part in this process,” he said.

Kurdish sources earlier told AFP that US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken had called PYD chair Saleh Muslim to discuss Washington’s view on the Kurdish issue and the peace talks.

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