The US has a “moral duty” to prevent Turkish incursions into Syria

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SDF chief

SDF commander Gen. Mazlum Kobane Abdi. Photo: Delil Soulieman/AFP via Getty Images

The commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tells Axios that the US has a “moral duty” to do more to prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from ordering a ground offensive into Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria .

The big picture: Turkey has launched drone, air and artillery strikes across its border with Syria over the past four days, with Erdoğan now promising to send in troops and tanks.

  • The mostly Kurdish SDF was the most effective U.S. partner in fighting ISIS in Syria, but Erdoğan views the militia as an enemy and blamed Kurdish groups for a Nov. 13 terror attack in Istanbul. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the SDF and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) denied involvement.
  • The SDF says 18 civilians and four of its soldiers have been killed in the latest Turkish attacks so far, with more than 50 civilians injured. A CENTCOM spokesman said on Wednesday, an airstrike on an SDF base posed “a risk to US troops and personnel” operating in the area.
  • Turkey, meanwhile, claims The SDF fired rockets back into Turkey, killing two people, which the SDF denies.

In an interview with Axios on Wednesday, SDF commander Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi said that while he has received intelligence that Turkey has told its local proxies to prepare for a ground offensive, the Biden administration may still convince Erdoğan to back off.

  • Turkey previously carried out a major ground offensive against the SDF in 2019 and has threatened to invade several times since then without following through.
  • Mazloum says Turkey’s strategy has been to announce an operation, make some preparations and then test the reactions of the US and Russia.
  • “I think once they [Turkey] see that there is no strong resistance from the main actors, they will go ahead,” says Mazloum. “We believe that the reactions are not yet enough to stop the Turks from launching this operation.”

What they say: “The escalation in Syria and along the Turkish-Syrian border in recent days is dangerous and a threat to the safety of civilians and US personnel in Syria,” a White House National Security Council spokesman told Axios.

  • “We strongly oppose military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities in Syria and risks the global coalition’s hard-earned progress against ISIS,” the spokesman added. The US still has around 900 troops in Syria.
  • The Kremlin, meanwhile, has said it respects Turkey’s security concerns but hopes that “all parties” will “refrain from steps that could lead to destabilization of the overall situation.”

Status: Erdoğan said on Wednesday that the ground operation would begin “at the most convenient time for us.” The Turkish leader seems inclined to push forward this time, and statements from Washington and Moscow won’t necessarily stop him, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute told Axios.

  • Officials from both the US and Russia told the SDF they were not notified by Turkey ahead of the strikes, Mazloum says. The White House did not comment.

The other side: Mazloum tells Axios that the SDF is committed to preventing “escalation,” but “if the fight happens, our forces will defend themselves and their people until the last of us.”

  • “This time the operation will not be limited and there will be chaos along the border with Turkey,” he warns.

“We believe that President Biden will fulfill his promises and protect the Kurds from ethnic cleansing of the region by the Turks, as he promised during his presidential campaign,” Mazloum says, crediting the administration for keeping those promises so far.

  • Retrospective: During the 2019 campaign, then-candidate Biden said then-President Trump had “sold out” and “betrayed” the SDF by withdrawing US troops from the area and appeared to clear the way for Turkey to move in.
  • Mazloum adds that after the SDF’s heavy losses against ISIS, with more than 12,000 soldiers killed, “we believe, and our people do the same, that the United States and others have a moral duty to defend the families of these martyrs and the people of this area. “

Between the lines: The Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations have all struggled to balance relations between the US with its NATO ally Turkey and its Kurdish partners in Syria.

  • Now the main American priority is not Syria, but Ukraine, says Cagaptay. Turkey has been a crucial arms supplier to the Ukrainians and an important mediator between Kiev and Moscow. It also vetoes NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.
  • All this suggests that the US is unlikely to “go as hard against Ankara as it has done in the past,” Cagaptay says.

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