Opinion | Turkey is playing with fire in Northern Syria

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Turkey’s fixation on alleged Kurdish terrorism reached a dangerous peak this week when Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria that are dangerously close to US forces there protecting against a resurgent Islamic State.

The dangers of this latest Turkish crackdown were described to me Wednesday by General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. He said that after three days of bombing Turkey, the SDF could lose its ability to provide security in prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families.

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“These strikes have already put the ISIS mission at risk,” said Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. “One of the strikes hit 130 meters away from US personnel, so American forces are at risk. Any extension of these attacks will increase that risk,” Buccino said in an email.

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Mazlum, as he is known, said that an hour before our conversation, a Turkish drone had fired at an SDF security post in the al-Hol refugee camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters. He said he did not know if any of the camp’s residents had escaped because a Turkish drone was still hovering over the camp and it was impossible for US and SDF forces there to safely survey the damage.

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Mazloum said SDF forces are also “under threat” as they try to maintain security in 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria, which hold about 12,000 captured ISIS fighters. More than 3,000 of those detainees escaped after a January prison break in Hasakah prison, and it took more than a week to recapture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s justification for the attack on the Syrian Kurds is its claim that the SDF and Mazlum are personally linked to the militant Kurdish militant group known as the PKK, which it says was responsible for the Nov. 13 terrorist bombing in Istanbul. Mazlum told me that his forces were not involved in the attack and expressed their condolences to the victims. As for the allegation that he is personally linked to PKK terrorism, he said “these are just excuses” and that he has worked closely with US and coalition forces for more than eight years.

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

Mazlum said the Turkish offensive began on Monday with an attack on a coalition base in Hasakah, where US special operations forces help train the SDF. I also visited this base in April and saw the combat partnership between the US and the Syrian Kurds that defeated ISIS. The Kurdish-led militia paid a heavy price in this campaign, killing 12,000 fighters, Mazlūms recalled on Wednesday.

Mazloum said he expects Turkey to launch a ground offensive in northern Syria soon in an effort to gain more control over Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS at great cost by the United States and its SDF partners. He said the US has an “ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed from this region”. He urged US officials to pressure Turkey to de-escalate its attacks before disaster strikes.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Wednesday and warned the Turks not to attack restricted areas around US troops. But a Pentagon official said there were “no signs [the Turks] are ready to de-escalate.” As Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria begins to destabilize the US-led coalition’s fragile grip on the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, a reasonable person begins to wonder: Who is this ally?

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