The rising violence has sent ripples of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbor. The Turkish government has fought Kurdish militants at home for decades, and it views the Kurdish dominated SDF as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan’s administration appeared to view as a greenlight from then-President Donald Trump.
Erdogan is threatening to repeat that effort with fresh ground forces, framing the strikes as retaliation for an attack in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more on a bustling thoroughfare last week. No group has declared responsibility for the attack.
“Those who condemn the attack in Istanbul with crocodile tears have revealed their real faces with their reactions to the operation that we began immediately after,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his party gathered in Ankara. “We have the right to take care of ourselves.”
A U.S.-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the militants seized a vast swath of land in Syria. Three and a half years after the group’s official defeat, hundreds of American troops are still stationed in territory that lies outside Syrian government control.
It was a partial American withdrawal in 2019 that again redrew the map of northeastern Syria, paving the way for Turkey to invade as it ceded territory once patrolled by U.S. forces to a Turkish-backed Syrian militia force and in other places to the Syrian army and its Russian backers.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF’s top commander and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to strongly oppose further Turkish attacks, arguing that Western pressure could avert a ground operation.
“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the ground operation for months, but he could launch this operation now,” said Mazloum, who goes by his nom de guerre. “This war, if it happens, won’t benefit anybody. It will affect many lives, there will be massive waves of displacement, and a humanitarian crisis.”
The violence puts the United States in a bind. Its decision to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against the Islamic State put it at odds with NATO-ally Turkey, and it has struggled ever since to balance commitments to both.
So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided being seen to take a side. “What we have said publicly, is that these strikes, from all sides, risk our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters Tuesday.
“We’ve been consistent on this,” she replied, when asked whether the U.S. was concerned about widening military operations in Syria. “We oppose all of the strikes that are happening right now from all sides.”
But James Jeffrey, a former U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said that the U.S. and Russia, another major player in northeast Syria had been less equivocal in private. “Russia and the U.S., both of whom have troops close to where the Turks would be operating, have urged Ankara not to act, and that could deter at least a major operation.”
By Tuesday night, the SDF said that at least 45 locations had been hit — among them, several medical facilities and a school building. In the border town of Derik, a reporter with the Kurdish Hawar News Agency, Essam Abdullah, was killed in a Turkish airstrike as he reported on an earlier attack in the same area, the outlet reported. Colleagues found his body.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami reposted a message from Biden in 2019 accusing Trump of abandoning the U.S.-backed force. “Today under your presidency, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your stance regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to the U.S.-led coalition,
“There is a real possibility of a Turkish ground offense or at least ground raid somewhere in Syria,” said James Jeffrey. “Russia and the U.S. both of whom have troops close to where the Turks would be operating have urged Ankara not to act, and that could deter at least a major operation.”
In the town of Kobane near the Turkish border, residents have slept in hallways as strikes shook their window frames. On Tuesday night, families stuffed their belongings into backpacks, fearing that they might soon have to run. Others dragged their mattresses to sleep in nearby orchards in the hope that they would be safer there.
They usually have no idea what is causing the explosions around them, just that more are likely to follow. Nesrin Salim, 32, said that she had run home through the night to grab blankets and then hurried her children to a cluster of trees where other local families were gathering.
“We were in a panic; we were confused. We didn’t know when we would be hit,” Salim said, recalling the attacks as she hung her children’s clothes out to dry Wednesday morning. “My only concern is my kids. I can’t think of anything else. I don’t want them to hear those explosions.”
Fear that Washington’s interest in northeastern Syria is waning has left the SDF increasingly reliant on the Syrian government and its ally Russia for protection against Turkey. Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that Moscow’s “close contact” with the Turkish Defense Ministry could prevent an escalation.
As Turkish attacks continue, there have also been salvos fired from Syria into Turkey. A child and a teacher were killed and six people, among them a woman who was 5-months pregnant, were hurt Monday when mortars hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province.
Mazloum denied that the SDF was responsible for the strikes, saying that the force sought only to de-escalate the situation. But in other public media, the SDF has vowed to take revenge. “They have killed many of our people, and we will retaliate,” Shami tweeted Monday.
Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, Karoun Demirjian in Washington and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.