Syria’s Kurds call on US for help as Turkey threatens ground attack

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BAGHDAD — A US-backed Syrian enclave is bracing for an onslaught from Turkish forces, as the region’s commander-in-chief has urged Washington to do more to prevent a threat of ground invasion that officials say the Biden administration, risked a break with NATO ally Turkey and a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forces have launched what US officials have called at least 100 air, drone and artillery strikes on towns in northeast Syria over the past four days. About 18 civilians and three soldiers were killed, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed force in the area.

The attacks have sent waves of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbour. Turkey, which has fought militants from its own Kurdish minority at home for decades, considers the SDF, dominated by Syrian Kurds, as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan appeared to view as a green light from President Donald Trump.

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Erdogan threatens to repeat this assault with new ground forces, calling the strikes retaliatory for a attack last week in central Istanbul which killed six people and injured dozens more. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, which Erdogan blamed on the SDF.

“Those who condemn the Istanbul bombing with crocodile tears revealed their true colors with their reactions to the operation we started immediately after,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his party gathered in Ankara. “We have the right to take care of ourselves.”

The SDF and other Kurdish organizations have denied any responsibility for the Istanbul bombing.

A United States-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the Islamic State seized 41,000 square miles across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the United States quickly chose Kurdish-led troops as a partner force. Three and a half years after the departure of the militants routed and Trump has partially withdrawn US forces, hundreds of US troops remain in territory now threatened with invasion, in support of SDF units still fighting militant remnants.

In an interview with The Washington Post, General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF commander-in-chief and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to firmly oppose further Turkish attacks, arguing that pressure Western could avoid a ground operation.

“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the ground operation for months, but he could launch this operation now,” Abdi said. “This war, if it takes place, will not benefit anyone. It will affect many lives. There will be massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.

Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brig. General Patrick Ryder said in a statement that “recent airstrikes in Syria pose a direct threat to the safety of American personnel working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees. Islamic State. …Immediate de-escalation is needed in order to maintain focus on the mission to defeat ISIS and ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground engaged in the mission to defeat ISIS.

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The violence puts the United States in a bind. His decision nearly a decade ago to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against Islamic State put him at odds with NATO ally Turkey, and he has since struggled to balance his commitments to both. The war in Ukraine has further complicated matters, analysts say, as Washington turns to Ankara to back Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, isolating Russia economically and bolstering an export deal grain from Ukraine to bolster the world’s food supply.

“With Ukraine being the top priority means looking for ways to keep Ankara on its side, as U.S.-Turkish relations have become increasingly strained over time,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East’s security program. Orient at the Center for a New American Security and former staffer of the House Armed Services Committee. “There is probably little appetite for meaningful engagement by Erdogan on Syria, which often elicits a very emotional response from Turkey, particularly if it jeopardizes Washington’s goals in Europe.”

So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided being seen as taking sides. “What we have said publicly is that these strikes, from all directions, jeopardize our mission, which is to defeat the Islamic State,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday.

Public criticism of Ankara would serve no purpose at this stage, according to several US administration and military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

But “we have been exceptionally clear in our private diplomatic communications with Ankara about the risk such operations pose,” an official said. “They are dangerous, they are destabilizing and they also have the potential to put our staff at risk. We haven’t given anyone the green light to carry out this kind of destructive operation.

Central Command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said one of the Turkish attacks on Tuesday came within 130 yards of US troops, which often share bases with the SDF. personal.

Turkey has few friends and a number of powerful critics in Congress, many of whom would see an incursion against the US-allied SDF as reason to impose direct consequences on Ankara. This pressure would likely increase exponentially if US military personnel were injured in the attacks.

At the same time, a decline in SDF attention to the sporadic but ongoing fight against the Islamic State could fuel a militant resurgence. On Wednesday evening, the SDF announced that it would temporarily cease its operations against the Islamic State to focus on Turkey.

Turkey began threatening another ground incursion into Syria earlier this year, but never followed through, resorting instead to selective attacks in northern Syria. The threat was seen by analysts as part of election-year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially tough re-election campaign early next year and hoping to win over nationalist-minded voters.

US officials said they have yet to see any indication that Turkey is mobilizing for a ground assault, unlike in 2019 when Turkish troops and equipment massed along the Syrian border.

In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami reposted a post from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-backed force. “Today, under your presidency, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your position regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”

DeYoung reported from Washington. Mustafa al-Ali in Kobani, Syria; Karoun Demirjian in Washington; and Kareem Fahim in Doha, Qatar contributed to this report.

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