BEIRUT: A senior U.S. official has visited Kurdish-controlled northern Syria in what appeared to be the first declared trip to Syrian territory for several years by an official from U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, said his weekend trip aimed to review the fight against Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls swathes of Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian Kurds have established control over wide areas of northern Syria since the country erupted into civil war in 2011, and their YPG militia has become a major partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
But the trip, the first of its kind to Kurdish-held Syria, may anger neighboring Turkey, which is alarmed by the growing sway of Syria’s Kurds, fearing it could fuel separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish population.
It follows the exclusion of the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, from Syria peace talks, in line with Turkish wishes.
McGurk posted photos of the trip on his Twitter feed, including a shot of a cemetery where he said he “paid respects to over 1,000 Kurdish martyrs” from the battle of Kobani waged by the YPG, with U.S.-led air support, against Islamic State.
A Syrian Kurdish official said McGurk landed at a Kurdish-controlled airport being used by U.S. military helicopters for logistics and deliveries. The airport at Rmeilan is currently being developed, the source said, and supplies are brought in “according to need”.
Fred Hof, a Syria expert with the Atlantic Council think tank, said to his knowledge this was the first declared visit to Syria by a U.S. government official since the U.S. embassy in Damascus was closed in February 2012.
The United States has supported the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, who it says has lost the legitimacy to rule, and has rejected cooperation with the Syrian government in the fight against Islamic State.
U.S. 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 was received by Kurdish officials, including the prime minister of one of three autonomous regions, or cantons, the Syrian Kurds have set up in northern Syria.
In a statement posted on Youtube, Akram Hasso, head of the administration of Jazeera province, said McGurk’s delegation was 17 strong and included representatives of France and Britain.
Hasso said McGurk’s delegation met representatives from all three Kurdish regions of northern Syria, who “discussed the planes and the new steps toward obtaining a political recognition”.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said McGurk’s 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”.
The YPG is an important part of the Syria Democratic Forces alliance formed in October, which has received U.S. military support to fight Islamic State. The SDF also includes fighters from other ethnicities including Arabs and Turkmen.
McGurk said he had “discussed next steps in Syria campaign” with “battle-tested and multi-ethnic anti-ISIL fighters”.