The attacks sent ripples of fear through an area no stranger to threats from its neighbors. Turkey, which has been fighting militants from its own Kurdish minority at home for decades, sees the SDF, dominated by Syrian Kurds., as a threat to his national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan saw as a green light from President Donald Trump.
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Erdogan has threatened to repeat the attack with fresh ground forces, framing the attack as retaliation for last week’s attack in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which Erdogan has blamed on the SDF.
“Those who condemned the attack in Istanbul with crocodile tears have revealed their true face with their reaction 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.”
The SDF and other Kurdish organizations denied responsibility for the Istanbul attack.
A US-led military coalition joined the war 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 forces as its partner force. Three and a half years after the militants routed and Trump partially withdraw US troops, hundreds of American troops remain in the area now under the threat of invasion, with the support of SDF units still battling the remaining militants.
In an interview with The Washington Post, General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the top commander of the SDF and a strong ally of Washington in Syria, urged Western allies to be determined against the next Turkish attack, arguing that Western pressure could prevent ground operations.
“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening a ground operation for months, but he can launch this operation now,” Abdi said. “This war, if it happens, will not benefit anyone. It will affect many lives. There will be a huge wave of displacement, and a humanitarian crisis.
Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brig. General Patrick Ryder, said in a statement that “The recent airstrikes in Syria directly threaten the safety of US personnel working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS prisoners. … Immediate de-escalation is necessary in order to maintain focus on the mission of defeating ISIS and ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground committed to the mission of defeating ISIS.”
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Violence puts the United States in a bind. Its decision nearly a decade ago to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against Islamic State put it at odds with NATO ally Turkey, and it has struggled to balance commitments to both. The war in Ukraine has worsened, analysts say, as Washington looks to Ankara to support Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, isolate Russia economically, and strengthen agreements that allow Ukrainian grain exports to feed the world’s food supply.
“Ukraine being an overwhelming priority means looking for ways to keep Ankara onside, as US-Turkey relations have grown more fraught over time,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New and Former American Security. staff member at the House Armed Services Committee. “There is little possibility of appetite for meaningful involvement of Erdogan on Syria, which often engenders a very emotional response from the Turkish side, especially if it puts Washington’s goals in Europe at great risk.”
So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided being seen to take sides. “What we are saying publicly is that this attack, from all sides, risks our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday.
Public criticism of Ankara would be useless at this point, according to several US administration and military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.
But “we have been very clear in our private diplomatic communications with Ankara about the risks posed by such an operation,” an official said. “They are dangerous, they are destabilizing, and they have the potential to put our personnel in harm’s way as well. We are not giving anyone the green light to carry out these destructive operations.
Central Command spokesman Colonel Joe Buccino said one of the Turkish strikes on Tuesday came within 130 meters of US forces, which often share bases with SDF personnel.
Turkey has few friends and a number of strong critics in Congress, many of whom see the attack against the US-allied SDF as a reason to impose direct consequences on Ankara. That pressure would likely increase exponentially if any US service members were injured in the attack.
At the same time, a decline in the SDF’s attention to the sporadic but ongoing war against the Islamic State could lead to a resurgence of militants. On Wednesday night, the SDF said it would temporarily halt its operations against ISIS to focus on Turkey.
Turkey began threatening a new ground attack on Syria earlier this year, but never followed through, resorting instead to selective attacks in northern Syria. The threat has been seen by analysts as part of election year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially tough reelection campaign early next year and hoping to rally nationalist-minded voters.
US officials said they had not seen any indication that Turkey was working on a ground attack, in contrast to 2019 when Turkish troops and equipment massed along the Syrian border.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami echoed the message from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-backed force. “Today in your presidency, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our troops have the right to explain your stance on Turkish aggression against our people.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria; Karoun Demirjian in Washington; and Kareem Fahim in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.