Statement | Turkey is playing with fire in northern Syria

Written by

Comment

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

The danger of this latest spasm of Turkish reprisals 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 at prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families.

“These attacks have already jeopardized the ISIS mission,” said Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. “One of the strikes hit within 130 meters of US personnel, so US forces are at risk. Any expansion of these strikes will increase that risk,” Buccino told me in an email.

Mazloum, as he is known, said that an hour before our conversation, a Turkish drone had fired at the SDF security post in the al-Hol refugee camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters. He said he did not know if any of the camp’s residents fled because a Turkish drone was still hovering over the camp and it was impossible for US and SDF forces there to safely survey the damage.

Mazloum said SDF forces are also “in danger right now” as they try to maintain security in 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria, where some 12,000 captured ISIS fighters are being held. After a January prison escape in Hasakah prison, more than 3,000 of these prisoners escaped, and it took more than a week to capture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s justification for attacking the Syrian Kurds is its claim that the SDF and Mazloum are personally affiliated with the militant Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which it claims was responsible for a terrorist attack on November 13 bombing in Istanbul. Mazloum told me his forces were not involved in the attack and had expressed sympathy for the victims. Regarding the accusation that he was personally associated with PKK terrorism, he said “these are just excuses” and that he had worked 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 al-Hol camp in April with Centcom commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla housing about 56,000 people, an estimated 70 percent of them under 18. We also toured Hasakah prison, and security seemed tenuous, even without Turkish bombers over the head.

Mazloum said the Turkish offensive began on 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 US and the Syrian Kurds that crushed ISIS. The Kurdish-led militia paid a heavy price in that campaign, with 12,000 fighters killed, Mazloum reminded me on Wednesday.

Mazloum said he expects Turkey to soon launch a ground offensive in northern Syria to seek greater control over Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS by the United States and its SDF partners at great cost. He said the United States has an “ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed 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 areas around American troops. But a Pentagon official said there was “no sign of that [the Turks] is ready to de-escalate.” As the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria begins to destabilize the US-led coalition’s fragile control over the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, a reasonable person begins to wonder: What kind of ally is this?

About the author

Leave a Comment