The attacks sent ripples of fear in an area that is no stranger to threats from its neighbor. Turkey, which has fought militants from its Kurdish minority at home for decades, sees the SDF, which is controlled by the Syrian Kurds, as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan appeared to see as a green light from President Donald Trump.
Turkey blames Kurdish militants for deadly bombing in Istanbul
Erdogan is threatening to repeat this attack with fresh ground forces, framing the strikes as revenge for an attack last week in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, which Erdogan blamed on the SDF.
“Those who condemn the attack in Istanbul with crocodile tears revealed their true faces with their reactions 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 attack in Istanbul.
A US-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the Islamic State group Occupied 41,000 square kilometers across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the United States quickly chose Kurdish-led forces as their partner force. Three and a half years after they were armed Pushed back and Trump partially withdrawing US forces, hundreds of US troops remain on the ground now under threat of invasion, supporting SDF units still battling militant remnants.
In an interview with The Washington Post, General Mazloum Kovna Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the SDF and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to strongly oppose further Turkish attacks, arguing that Western pressure could prevent a ground operation.
“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the 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 massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. General Patrick Ryder said in a statement that “the recent airstrikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain the detention of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees. … There is a need for an immediate de-escalation in order to maintain focus on the mission of defeating ISIS and to ensure the safety and security of the field personnel committed to the mission of defeating ISIS.”
As the US completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, US allies in Syria are watching warily
The violence puts the United States on hold. 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 since struggled to balance commitments to both. The war in Ukraine has further complicated matters, analysts say, as Washington looks to Ankara for support from Sweden and Finland joining NATO, isolating Russia economically and strengthening an agreement that allows the export of Ukrainian grain to strengthen the world’s food supply.
“Ukraine’s overriding priority means looking for ways to sideline Ankara, as U.S.-Turkey relations have become more fraught over time,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New American Security and former Armed Services Committee staff member. “There is likely little appetite to engage with what Erdogan means in Syria, which often causes a highly emotional response from the Turkish side, especially if it puts Washington’s goals in Europe at greater risk.”
So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided appearing to take sides. “What we’ve said publicly is that these attacks, from all sides, are jeopardizing our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday.
Public criticism of Ankara would serve no useful purpose at this point, according to several US administration and military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
But “we have been extraordinarily clear in our private diplomatic communications with Ankara about the risk such operations pose,” one official said. “They are dangerous, they destabilize, and they have the potential to put our team at risk as well. We have not given anyone the green light to conduct this type of destructive operation.”
Central Command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said one of the Turkish strikes on Tuesday came within 130 meters of US forces, who often share bases with the SDF.
Turkey has few friends and a number of powerful critics in Congress, many of whom would see an incursion against the U.S.-allied SDF as a reason to impose direct consequences on Ankara. That pressure would likely increase exponentially if any U.S. service members were harmed in the attacks.
At the same time, a decline in SDF attention to the sporadic but ongoing fight against the Islamic State could spark a resurgence. On Wednesday night, the SDF announced that it would temporarily halt its operations against ISIS to focus on Turkey.
Turkey began threatening a new ground invasion of Syria earlier this year, but it never followed through, instead resorting to selective strikes in northern Syria. The threat is seen by analysts as part of election-year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially tough re-election campaign early next year and hoping to rally nationalist-minded voters.
U.S. officials said they have yet to see any indication that Turkey is mobilizing for a ground attack, unlike in 2019 when Turkish forces and equipment massed along the Syrian border.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami reposted a message from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-backed force. “Today under your presidency, the same thing is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your position Regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria; Karon Demirjian in Washington; and Karim Fahim in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.