Kurds in Syria call for U.S. help as Turkey threatens ground assault

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BAGHDAD – A Syrian enclave where the US is backing attacks by Turkish forces, its top commander has called on Washington to do more to counter a ground invasion that threatens Washington.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forces launched air, drone and artillery strikes on northeastern Syrian towns and cities for a fourth day on Wednesday. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed force in the region, said about 18 civilians and three soldiers were killed in the attack.

The escalating violence has sent waves of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbors. The Turkish government has been fighting Kurdish militias internally for decades and views the Kurdish-dominated SDF as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019 after Erdogan’s administration appeared to have given then-President Donald Trump a green light.

Turkey has blamed Kurdish militants for the Istanbul bombings

Erdogan is threatening to repeat the strikes with fresh ground forces in retaliation for an attack in central Istanbul last week that killed six people and injured dozens on a busy thoroughfare. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

“Those who condemned the attack in Istanbul with crocodile tears have shown their true colors with the action we started immediately,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his party gathered in Ankara. “We have a right to take care of ourselves.”

A US-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in Syria in 2014 after the militants seized large swaths of territory. Three and a half years after the group’s official defeat, hundreds of US troops are still stationed in territory outside Syrian government control.

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It was a partial U.S. withdrawal in 2019 that reshaped the map of northeastern Syria, paving the way for Turkey to invade as it ceded territory once patrolled by U.S. forces to Turkish-backed Syrian militias and elsewhere to the Syrian army. Its Russian supporters.

In an interview with The Washington Post, General Masloum Koban Abdi, the SDF’s top commander and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to strongly resist further Turkish attacks.

“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening ground action for months, but he may start this action now,” Masloum said. “This war will benefit no one. It will affect many lives, cause massive displacement waves and a humanitarian crisis.

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This violence puts America in a bind. Its decision to support Kurdish-led ground forces in the fight against Islamic State has put it at odds with NATO ally Turkey, and it has struggled to balance the two sides.

So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided taking sides. “What we’ve said publicly is that these strikes, from all sides, will jeopardize our mission to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday.

When asked if the US was concerned about expanding military operations in Syria, he replied: “We’re still on it.” “We are opposing all strikes now from all sides.”

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But James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to the anti-ISIS coalition, said the U.S. and Russia, another major player in northeastern Syria, are less conciliatory on individual matters. “Russia and the U.S., which have troops near where the Turks are operating, have urged Ankara not to act, and that could prevent at least one major operation.”

By Tuesday night, the SDF said at least 45 locations had been affected – including several medical facilities and a school building. In the border town of Derik, Essam Abdullah, a reporter for the Kurdish Hawar news agency, was killed in a Turkish airstrike while reporting on an earlier attack in the same area. His body was found by colleagues.

In a post on Twitter, STF spokesman Farhad Shami retweeted Biden’s message in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-backed force. “Today under your leadership, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your position regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”

James Jeffrey, former ambassador to the US-led coalition

“There is a real possibility of a Turkish ground offensive, or at least a ground attack somewhere in Syria,” James Jeffrey said. “Russia and the U.S. have troops close to where the Turks are operating and have urged Ankara not to act, which could at least prevent a major operation.”

In the city of Goban, near the Turkish border, residents slept on the pavement as strikes shook their window frames. On Tuesday night, families packed their belongings into backpacks, fearing they would soon have to flee. Others pulled mattresses to sleep in nearby gardens, hoping to be safe there.

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They usually don’t know what’s causing the explosions around them, much less follow. Nesrin Salim, 32, said she ran home through the night to grab blankets and then rushed her children to a clump of trees where other local families had gathered.

“We were in a panic; We were confused. We don’t know when we will be attacked,” Salim said, recalling the attacks on Wednesday morning while drying his children’s clothes. “My only concern is my children. I couldn’t think of anything else. I don’t want them to hear those explosions.

Fears of Washington’s waning interest in northeastern Syria have left the SDF increasingly dependent on the Syrian government and its ally Russia for protection against Turkey. Russia’s special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said on Wednesday that Moscow’s “close contact” with the Turkish Defense Ministry could prevent escalation.

As Turkish attacks continue, attacks on Turkey have also been launched from Syria. A child and a teacher were killed and six others, including a 5-month-pregnant woman, were injured Monday when mortar shelling hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province.

Masloum denied that the SDF was responsible for the strikes, saying the force was only trying to defuse the situation. But in other public media, the SDF has vowed revenge. “They have killed our people and we will retaliate,” Shami tweeted on Monday.

Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, Karoun Demirjian in Washington, and Sarah Tatoouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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