EXCLUSIVE-Syrian Kurdish YPG aims to expand force to over 100,000


Reuters

* YPG group says aims to boost force by two-thirds this year
    * Group plays a major part in U.S.-backed campaign in Syria
    * YPG aims to turn itself into something resembling an army
    * Graphic-Battle for control in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2l02TCA

    By Tom PerryBEIRUT, March 20 (Reuters) - The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia
aims to expand its force by about two-thirds to more than
100,000 fighters this year, it told Reuters, a plan that would
strengthen autonomous Kurdish enclaves that are of deep concern
to neighbouring Turkey.
    The YPG, which is playing a crucial role in the U.S.-backed
campaign against Islamic State in Syria, has launched a major
drive this year to turn itself into a more organised force
resembling an army, spokesman Redur Xelil said.
    The militia, which had 60,000 fighters at the end of 2016 -
including its all-female affiliate, the YPJ - has already formed
10 new battalions since the start of this year, each comprised
of around 300 fighters, he said.
    "We aspire to exceed 100,000," Xelil said in response to
written questions from Reuters. Asked how soon the YPG aimed to
reach this target, he said: "The second half of 2017."
    The YPG, or People's Protection Units, effectively serves as
the military of the autonomous Kurdish-led regions which emerged
in northern Syria with the retreat of state authority in 2011
that accompanied the outbreak of civil war.
    The militia is financed by the administrations of those
regions. The force and its political affiliate, the PYD, are
opposed not only by Turkey but by the Kurdish authorities in
neighbouring Iraq. Their relationship with the Syrian
government, despite historic enmity, is more nuanced, with the
sides mostly having avoided conflict in the six-year-old war.
    Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency
in Turkey, and as a threat to Turkish security.
    The Turkish military launched a military incursion into
Syria last year aimed at blocking further expansion of Kurdish
control in an area of northern Syria known in Kurdish as Rojava.
    The 10 new units and other new battalions to be formed this
year will be trained in all forms of combat, weaponry and
tactics, with the aim of turning the YPG into a more organised
force that resembles a traditional army, Xelil said.
    "A disciplined, cohesive military force, well-trained in
different tactics of war ... is the true guarantee to defend us
and to affirm our presence as a great nation that deserves
dignity," says a YPG leaflet seeking recruits for the new
battalions that has been circulated in the predominantly Kurdish
regions of Syria, which is home to roughly 2 million Kurds.
    Each fighter will receive a monthly salary of $200, which is
$20 above the maximum wage currently paid to YPG fighters, Xelil
said.

    RAQQA ROLE
    Syrian Kurdish groups established the three autonomous
administrations in Kurdish-dominated areas of northern Syria as
Syrian state control collapsed in much of the country, setting
up their own bureaucracies in addition to security forces.
    Officials say their revenue streams include taxes on
agricultural produce, and income raised by selling oil from
fields in northeastern Syria, though they say only enough is
sold to meet local needs.
    The YPG is playing a key role in an ongoing U.S.-backed
campaign to isolate Islamic State's base of operations at Raqqa.
    YPG commander Sipan Hemo told Reuters last week that the
operation to storm Raqqa was due to start in early April, and
the YPG would make up a quarter of the force that will take the
city alongside allied Arab fighters. The Pentagon said no
decision had been taken yet. [nL5N1GU03C]
    Xelil said the new battalions were not taking part in the
operation to encircle Raqqa. He declined to say if the new
training programme was supported by any foreign militaries.
    The YPG's 60,000-strong strength includes the YPJ - the
all-female militia that numbers around 24,000, Xelil said. Both
male and female fighters are being sought in the recruitment
drive.
    The dominant Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies aim to
deepen their autonomy through the establishment of a new system
of federal government in the north. The Kurds, systematically
persecuted for years by the Syrian state, say their aim is not
independence.
    Hemo told Reuters that the YPG aimed to "fight terrorism"
everywhere in Syria, while its political priority was
"guaranteeing the rights of the Kurdish people in Syria legally,
constitutionally".
    He also signalled a readiness on the part of the YPG to
reach a long-term accommodation with the Syrian government,
saying "there will be no problem with the regime" once Kurdish
rights are secured.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has stated his opposition
to the regional federal model which the dominant Syrian Kurdish
groups say should be the solution to the Syrian war. Assad has
vowed to take back all of Syria.

    <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
Graphic of battle for control in Syria    http://tmsnrt.rs/2l02TCA
    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>
 (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Pravin Char)
 ((thomas.perry@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging:
thomas.perry.reuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: MIDEAST CRISIS/SYRIA YPG (EXCLUSIVE, PIX, GRAPHIC)



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