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U.S. calls for de-escalation as Turkey threatens ground assault into Syria

Syrians check the aftermath of a rocket attack in Azaz on Tuesday. (Alif Bakri/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD — A U.S.-supported Syrian enclave braced for assault by Turkish forces, as the area’s top commander urged Washington to do more to prevent a threatened ground invasion that Biden administration officials said risked a breach with NATO ally Turkey and a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forces have launched what U.S. officials said were at least 100 air, drone and artillery strikes on northeastern Syrian towns and cities over the past four days. About 18 civilians and three soldiers have been killed, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed force in the area.

The attacks have sent ripples of fear through an area that is no stranger to threats from its neighbor. Turkey, which has fought militants from its own Kurdish minority at home for decades, views the SDF, dominated by Syrian Kurds, as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan appeared to view as a greenlight from President Donald Trump.

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Erdogan is threatening to repeat that assault with fresh ground forces, framing the strikes as retaliation for an attack last week in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more. No group has declared responsibility for the attack, which Erdogan has blamed on the SDF.

“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.”

The SDF and other Kurdish organizations have denied responsibility for the Istanbul attack.

A U.S.-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the Islamic State seized 41,000 square miles across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the United States quickly chose Kurdish-led troops as its partner force. Three and a half years after the militants were routed and Trump partly withdrew U.S. forces, hundreds of American troops remain in the territory now under threat of invasion, in support of SDF units still battling militant remnants.

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,” Abdi said. “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 Pentagon press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said in a statement: “Recent airstrikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of U.S. personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees. … Immediate de-escalation is necessary in order to maintain focus on the defeat-ISIS mission and ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground committed to the defeat-ISIS mission.”

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The violence puts the United States in a bind. Its decision nearly a decade ago to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against the Islamic State put it at odds with Turkey, and it has struggled ever since to balance commitments to both. The war in Ukraine has complicated things further, analysts say, as Washington looks to Ankara for support in Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, isolating Russia economically, and bolstering a deal allowing the export of Ukrainian grain to shore up the world’s food supply.

“Ukraine being the overwhelming priority means looking for ways to keep Ankara onside, as U.S.-Turkey relations have grown increasingly fraught over time,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security and a former staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. “There’s likely little appetite for meaningfully engaging Erdogan on Syria, which often engenders a highly emotional response from the Turkish side, particularly if it puts Washington’s objectives in Europe at greater risk.”

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.

Public criticism of Ankara would serve no useful purpose at this point, according to several U.S. administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

But “we have been exceptionally clear in our private diplomatic communications with Ankara about the risk that such operations pose,” one official said. “They’re dangerous, they’re destabilizing, and they have the potential to put our personnel in harm’s way as well. We have not given anyone a green light to conduct this kind of destructive operation.”

Central Command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said one of the Turkish attacks on Tuesday came within 130 meters of U.S. troops, who often share bases with SDF personnel.

Turkey has few friends and a number of powerful critics in Congress, many of whom would consider an incursion against the U.S.-allied SDF a reason to impose direct consequences on Ankara. That pressure would probably increase exponentially if any U.S. service members were harmed in the attacks.

At the same time, a decrease in SDF attention to the sporadic but ongoing fight against the Islamic State could fuel a militant resurgence. On Wednesday night, the SDF said that it would be temporarily ceasing its operations against ISIS to focus on Turkey.

Turkey began threatening a new ground incursion into Syria earlier this year, but it never followed through, resorting instead to selective attacks in northern Syria. The threat has been seen by analysts as part of election-year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially tough reelection campaign early next year and hoping to rally nationalist-minded voters.

U.S. officials said that they have seen no indications yet that Turkey is mobilizing for a ground assault, in contrast to 2019 when Turkish troops 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 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.”

DeYoung reported from Washington. Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria; Karoun Demirjian in Washington; and Kareem Fahim in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

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