The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkey is playing with fire in northern Syria

Smoke rises from an oil depot hit by a Turkish airstrike near Qamishli, Syria, on Wednesday. (Baderkhan Ahmad/AP)
4 min

Turkey’s fixation on alleged Kurdish terrorism reached a dangerous flash point this week, as Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria that are perilously close to U.S. forces there guarding against a resurgence of the Islamic State.

The danger of this latest spasm of Turkish reprisal attacks was described to me on Wednesday by Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF. He said that after three days of Turkish bombing, the SDF could lose its ability to maintain security at prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families.

“These strikes have already placed the ISIS mission at risk,” said Col. Joseph Buccino, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. “One of the strikes hit within 130 meters of U.S. personnel, so American forces are at risk. Any extension of these attacks will drive up that risk,” Buccino told me in an email.

Mazloum, as he is known, said that an hour before our conversation, a Turkish drone had fired on the SDF security post at the al-Hol refugee camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters. He said he didn’t know whether any of the residents of the camp escaped, because a Turkish drone was still loitering over the camp, and it was impossible for U.S. and SDF forces there to survey the damage safely.

Follow David Ignatius's opinionsFollow

Mazloum said SDF forces are also “at risk right now” as they try to maintain security at 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria where about 12,000 captured ISIS fighters are housed. After a January prison break at the Hasakah prison, more than 3,000 of these detainees escaped, and it took more than a week to capture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s rationale for attacking the Syrian Kurds is its claim that the SDF, and Mazloum personally, are affiliated with the militant Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which they contend was responsible for a Nov. 13 terrorist bombing in Istanbul. Mazloum told me his forces had no involvement in the attack and had expressed sympathy for the victims. As for the charge that he was personally affiliated with PKK terrorism, he said, “these are just excuses” and that he had been working closely with U.S. and coalition forces for more than eight years.

Northern Syria is a bomb that Turkey, through its reckless actions, seems determined to detonate. When I visited the al-Hol camp in April with Centcom commander Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, it housed about 56,000 people, an estimated 70 percent of them under 18. We toured the Hasakah prison, too, and security seemed fragile, even without Turkish bombers overhead.

Mazloum said the Turkish assault began on Monday with an attack on a coalition base in Hasakah, where U.S. Special Operations forces help train the SDF. I visited that base in April, too, and saw the combat partnership between the United States and the Syrian Kurds that shattered ISIS. The Kurdish-led militia paid a heavy price in that campaign, with 12,000 fighters killed, Mazloum reminded me on Wednesday.

Mazloum said that he expects Turkey to soon begin a ground assault in northern Syria, seeking greater control of Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS by the United States and its SDF partners at great cost. He said that the United States has an “ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed from this region.” He urged U.S. officials to pressure Turkey to de-escalate its attacks before there is a disaster.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart and warned the Turks against attacking restricted zones around U.S. troops. But a Pentagon official said there was “no sign that [the Turks] are ready to de-escalate.” As the Turkish military assault in northern Syria begins to destabilize the U.S.-led coalition’s fragile control over the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, a reasonable person begins to wonder: What kind of an ally is this?