Syria's Kurds turn to US as Turkey threatens ground operation
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warns of a possible new ground incursion into neighboring Syria, officials from the Kurdish-controlled region are pleading with the Biden administration to intervene.

Ilham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria, has written to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the administration to speak out forcefully against a potential Turkish invasion, Al-Monitor reported..

In a letter to Blinken sent Tuesday, the SDC’s executive committee president described concerns that Turkey was seeking to occupy new Syrian land with its threatened ground incursion. Ahmed argued that a renewed offensive would undermine the SDF's ability to fight the Islamic State as well as secure the notoriously overcrowded Al-Hol camp that’s holding displaced families linked to the extremist group. 

Ahmed’s appeal comes as Turkish warplanes continue to target towns across northern Syria in apparent retaliation for a bombing on Nov. 13 that killed six people and injured more than 80 others in central Istanbul. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and in her letter, Ahmed denied any involvement by the SDF.

Syrian Kurdish officials say more than two dozen have been killed, including civilians, since Sunday in Turkish strikes targeting the People's Protection Units (YPG), the militia that forms the backbone of the SDF. A day after the Pentagon called for de-escalation, two SDF fighters were killed Tuesday in a suspected Turkish drone strike within 130 meters of a base used by American troops, Jared Szuba reports.

Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters remains a source of tension in its relationship with Ankara, which views them as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both Turkey and the United States label the PKK, which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, a terrorist group.

On Monday, Turkish officials blamed Kurdish militants for a mortar attack that killed two people — a 5-year-old boy and a teacher — in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep.

Reached for comment, a Turkish official said the latest military operation in Syria, dubbed "Claw-Sword," is aimed at "ensuring the protection of the Turkish borders and striking at the root of terrorism."

The Biden administration says Turkey has a right to defend itself but warns cross-border violence could undermine Ankara and Washington's shared goal of defeating Islamic State militants, who the US military estimates number between 6,000 to 10,000 across Syria and Iraq. Nearly four years after the collapse of IS's self-declared caliphate, several hundred US troops remain stationed in the Kurdish-run territory to help quash what remains of the terrorist group. 

The US has “consistently communicated our serious concerns to Turkey, in public and private,” a State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor. “We have urged Turkey against such operations, just as we have urged our Syrian partners against attacks or escalation.”

Such statements “are absolutely not strong enough,” SDF commander Mazlum Kobane told Amberin Zaman on Tuesday. “They need to do more,” he said of the Biden administration. (You can read his full interview here.)

But Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, cautioned that the SDF shouldn’t rely on the United States alone to deter Turkish military action.

 “Turkey is an important NATO ally for the US, and no matter how bad the relations are, there is a floor to it,” Khalifa said. “The US can — and probably will — impose some sanctions on Turkey if there is a Turkish ground incursion in specific areas, but beyond that, they won’t blow their relations with Turkey over it.”

Officials with the Turkish Embassy in Washington say deconfliction channels with the Americans remain open. On Wednesday, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Yasar Guler. The Pentagon description of their call made no mention of Syria, but said they discussed “several items of mutual strategic interest.”

Also Wednesday, Sinam Mohamad, the SDC's top representative in Washington, held meetings with Biden administration officials. “They told us, ‘We don’t want the destabilization of the region,’” Mohamad said. “But is Turkey listening? No, I don’t think so.”

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