opinion | Turkey is playing with fire in northern Syria


Turkey’s fixation on alleged Kurdish terrorism reached a dangerous flashpoint this week, when Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria that were perilously close to US forces there guarding against a resurgence of the Islamic State.

The danger of this latest spasm of Turkish retaliatory attacks was described to me on Wednesday by General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. He said that after three days of Turkish bombing, the SDF could lose its ability to maintain security in prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families.

“These attacks have already endangered the ISIS mission,” said Colonel Joseph Buccino, spokesman for the US Central Command, which oversees the region. “One of the attacks hit within 130 yards of US personnel, so US troops are at risk. Any expansion of these attacks increases that risk,” Buccino told me in an email.

Mazloum, as he is called, said that an hour before our conversation, a Turkish drone had fired on the SDF security post in the al-Hol refugee camp, where families of IS fighters are housed. He said he didn’t know if any of the camp’s residents had escaped because a Turkish drone was still hovering over the camp and it was impossible for US and SDF troops there to survey the damage safely.

Mazloum said SDF forces are also currently “at risk” as they try to maintain security in 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria, which house about 12,000 captured ISIS fighters. After a prison break at Hasakah Prison in January, more than 3,000 of these inmates escaped, and it took more than a week to capture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s rationale for attacking the Syrian Kurds is the claim that the SDF, and Mazloum personally, are connected to the militant Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which they say was responsible for a November 13 terrorist bombing in Istanbul . Mazloum told me his troops were not involved in the attack and had expressed sympathy for the victims. As for the allegation that he had personal ties to PKK terrorism, he said “these are just excuses” and that he had been working closely with US and coalition forces for more than eight years.

Northern Syria is a bomb that Turkey, through its reckless actions, seems determined to detonate. When I visited the al-Hol camp with Centcom commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla in April, about 56,000 people lived there, an estimated 70 percent of whom were under the age of 18. without Turkish bombers overhead.

Mazloum said the Turkish attack began Monday with an attack on a coalition base in Hasakah, where US Special Operations forces help train the SDF. I also visited that base in April and saw the combat partnership between the United States and the Syrian Kurds that shattered ISIS. The Kurdish-led militia paid a heavy price in that campaign, with 12,000 fighters killed in action, Mazloum reminded me on Wednesday.

Mazloum said he expects Turkey to launch a ground attack in northern Syria soon, seeking greater control over Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS at great cost by the United States and its SDF partners. He said the United States has an “ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from ethnic cleansing from this region”. He urged US officials to pressure Turkey to de-escalate its attacks before disaster strikes.

General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday and warned the Turks against attacking restricted zones around US troops. But a Pentagon official said there was “no sign of it [the Turks] are ready to de-escalate.” As the Turkish military strike in northern Syria begins to destabilize the US-led coalition’s fragile control over the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, any reasonable person begins to wonder: What kind of ally is this?

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