Opinion | Turkey is playing with fire in Northern Syria

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Turkey’s alleged commitment to Kurdish terrorism reached a dangerous flashpoint this week, when Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria that are at risk for U.S. forces defending against an Islamic State resurgence.

General Masloum Koban Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, described the danger of these latest Turkish retaliatory attacks to me on Wednesday. He said the SDF would lose its ability to maintain security in prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families after three days of Turkish bombardment.

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

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An hour before our conversation, Masloum, as he’s known, said a Turkish drone had fired at an SDF security position in al-Hol refugee camp, home to families of Islamic State fighters. He said he did not 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 forces there to safely survey the damage.

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Mazloum said SDF forces are also “at risk 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 the January prison break at Hasaka prison, 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 justification for attacking Syrian Kurds is that the SDF and Mazloum are personally linked to the militant Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which it claims is responsible for the November 13 terrorist bombings in Istanbul. Masloum told me that his forces had nothing to do with the attack and sympathized with the victims. As for allegations that he was personally linked 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 seems determined to detonate with its reckless actions. When CENTCOM commander Gen. Michael “Eric” Guerrilla visited the al-Hol camp in April, it was home to about 56,000 people, an estimated 70 percent of whom were under the age of 18. We also toured Hasaka Prison and the security seemed lax. Without the Turkish bombers.

Masloum said the Turkish offensive began on Monday with an attack on a coalition base in Hasaka, where US special operations forces help train the SDF. I visited the site in April, and the US-Syrian Kurds war partnership against ISIS. Masloum reminded me Wednesday that Kurdish-led militias paid a heavy price in that campaign, with 12,000 fighters killed.

Mazloum said he expected Turkey to soon launch a ground offensive in northern Syria, seeking greater control over Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS at great cost by the US and its SDF partners. “The United States has a moral responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed from this region,” he said. He urged U.S. officials to pressurize Turkey’s attacks before a disaster occurs.

General Mark A. Milli, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday and warned the Turks against attacking restricted areas around US troops. But a Pentagon official said there was “no sign of that.” [the Turks] are ready to defuse.” As the Turkish military offensive in northern Syria begins to undermine the US-led coalition’s tenuous grip on the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, a reasonable person begins to wonder: What kind of ally is this?

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