The rising tide of 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.
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Erdogan is now threatening to repeat that effort with fresh ground forces, framing the strikes as retaliation for an attack in central Istanbul which killed six people and wounded dozens more on a bustling thoroughfare last week. No group has claimed the attack.
“Those who condemned 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 US-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the militants seized a vast swath of land there. 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 once again redrew the map of northeast Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s invasion as it ceded territory once patrolled by US 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 present robust opposition to further Turkish attacks, arguing that Western pressure could make the difference between a ground operation taking place or being averted.
“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.”
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The violence puts America 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 to balance commitments to both ever since.
In a short statement Monday, the Biden administration urged de-escalation, but did not condemn the violence. “The United States expresses its sincere condolences for the loss of civilian life in Syria and Turkey,” the State Department said.
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 and his camera were found in the wreckage.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami reposted a message from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-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.”
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 nearby orchards in the hope that they were safer there.
They usually have no idea what was causing the explosions around them, just that more were likely to follow. Nesrin Salim, 32, said that she had run home through the night to grab blankets, and then bundled 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.”
Fears that Washington’s interest in the northeast are waning have left the SDF increasingly reliant on the Syrian government and its Russian allies. Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that Moscow’s “close contact” with the Turkish Defense Ministry could prevent further 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 were hurt on Monday when mortars hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province. A woman who is 5 months pregnant was also seriously injured in that attack.
Mazloum denied that the SDF were responsible for the strikes, saying that the force sought only to de-escalate the situation. But in other public media, the SDF has vowed revenge. “They have killed many of our people, and we will retaliate,” Shami tweeted Monday.
Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, contributed to this report.