The attacks have sent ripples of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbor. The Turkish government has fought Kurdish militants at home for decades and views the Kurdish-dominated SDF as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what the Erdogan administration appeared to see as a green light from President Donald Trump.
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Erdogan is threatening to repeat that assault with new ground forces, framing the strikes in retaliation for an attack in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more on a busy street last week. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Those who condemn the Istanbul attack with crocodile tears have revealed their true faces with their reactions to the operation that 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.”
A US-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the militants seized 41,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the US quickly chose Kurdish-led troops as its partner force, and three and a half years after the militants were defeated, hundreds of US troops are still stationed in territory now under threat of invasion. .
It was a partial US withdrawal in 2019 that redrew the map of northeast Syria, paving the way for Turkey to invade as the US ceded territory once patrolled by its forces to a Turkish-backed Syrian militia and in elsewhere to the Syrian army. and his Russian patrons.
In an interview with The Washington Post, General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF’s top commander and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to strongly oppose further Turkish attacks, arguing that Western pressure could prevent 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 happens, will not benefit anyone. It will affect many lives, there will be massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.”
On Wednesday night, the SDF said it would temporarily cease its operations against ISIS to focus on fighting the Turkish assault.
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The violence puts the United States in a bind. His decision to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against Islamic State put him at odds with NATO ally Turkey, and he has struggled ever since to balance engagements with both. The war in Ukraine has further complicated matters, analysts say, as Washington looks to Ankara for support for Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership, isolating Russia economically and bolstering a deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports to shore up the world food supply.
“Ukraine’s overwhelming priority means looking for ways to keep Ankara on the side as US-Turkey relations have become increasingly tense over time,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Program. at the Center for a New American Security and a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“There is probably little appetite to meaningfully engage Erdogan in Syria, which often draws a very emotional response from the Turkish side, particularly if it puts Washington’s objectives in Europe at further risk.”
Until now, the Biden administration has carefully avoided being considered to take sides. “What we have said publicly is that these attacks, from all sides, jeopardize our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday.
“We have been consistent on this,” he replied when asked if the United States was concerned about expanding military operations in Syria. “We oppose all the strikes that are happening right now from all sides.”
Turkey began threatening a new ground incursion into Syria earlier this year but never followed through, instead resorting to targeted strikes in northern Syria. Analysts have seen the threat as part of election-year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially difficult re-election campaign early next year and hoping to rally nationalist-minded voters.
On Wednesday morning, the SDF said that at least 45 places had been attacked. three days — including several medical facilities and a school building. In the border town of Derik, a reporter for the Kurdish news agency Hawar, Essam Abdullah, was killed in a Turkish airstrike while reporting on a previous attack in the same area, the outlet reported.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami reposted a message from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of leaving the US-backed force. “Today, under his presidency, the same thing is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know their position regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”
In the city of Kobane, near the Turkish border, some residents slept in corridors as strikes rattled their window frames. Others dragged their mattresses to sleep in nearby orchards, hoping to be safer there.
Nesrin Salim, 32, said she had run home overnight to grab blankets, then led her children to a clump of trees where other local families were gathering.
“We were in a panic; we were confused. We didn’t know when they would attack us,” Salim said, recalling his attacks as he hung his children’s clothes to dry on Wednesday morning. “My only concern is my children. I can’t think of anything else.
Fears that Washington’s interest in northeast Syria is waning has made the SDF increasingly dependent on the Syrian government and its ally Russia for protection against Turkey. Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that Moscow’s “close contact” with the Turkish Defense Ministry could prevent an escalation.
As the Turkish attacks continue, salvoes have also been fired from Syria towards Turkey. A child and a teacher were killed and six people, including a five-month pregnant woman, wounded on Monday when mortar shells hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province.
Mazloum denied that the SDF was responsible for the attacks, saying the force was only seeking to de-escalate the situation. But in other public media, the SDF have vowed revenge. “They have killed many of our people and we will retaliate,” Shami tweeted on Monday.
Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, Karoun Demirjian in Washington, and Kareem Fahim in Doha contributed to this report.