Nov 23, 2022 - World

Kurdish commander: U.S. has "moral duty" to prevent Turkish incursion in Syria

SDF commander

SDF Commander Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi. Photo: Delil Soulieman/AFP via Getty Images

The commander of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) tells Axios the U.S. has a "moral duty" to do more to prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from ordering a ground offensive into Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.

The big picture: Turkey has launched drone, air and artillery strikes across the border into Syria over the past four days, with Erdoğan now promising to send in troops and tanks.

  • The mostly Kurdish SDF was the most effective U.S. partner in combating ISIS in Syria, but Erdoğan considers the militia an enemy and blames Kurdish groups for a Nov. 13 terror attack in Istanbul. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack and the SDF and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) denied involvement.
  • The SDF says 18 civilians and four of its soldiers have been killed in the most recent Turkish strikes so far, with more than 50 civilians injured. A CENTCOM spokesperson said on Wednesday an airstrike on an SDF base posed “a risk to U.S. troops and personnel” operating in the area.
  • Turkey, meanwhile, claims the SDF fired rockets back into Turkey and killed two people, which the SDF denies.

In an interview with Axios on Wednesday, SDF Commander Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi said that while he has received concerning intelligence that Turkey has told its local proxies to prepare for a ground offensive, the Biden administration could still convince Erdoğan to back off.

  • Turkey previously conducted a major ground offensive against the SDF in 2019 and has threatened incursions multiple times since without following through.
  • Mazloum says Turkey's strategy has been to announce an operation, conduct some preparations, then test the reactions of the U.S. and Russia.
  • "I believe once they [Turkey] see there is no strong opposition from the main players they will go ahead," Mazloum says. "We believe the reactions are not enough yet to stop the Turks from launching this operation."

What they're saying: "The escalation in Syria and along the Turkish-Syrian border in recent days is dangerous and a threat to the safety of civilians and U.S. personnel in Syria," a White House National Security Council spokesperson told Axios.

  • "We strongly oppose military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities in Syria and risks the Global Coalition’s hard-earned progress against ISIS," the spokesperson added. The U.S. still has around 900 troops in Syria.
  • The Kremlin, meanwhile, has said it respects Turkey's security concerns but hopes "all parties" will "refrain from steps that could lead to the destabilization of the overall situation."

State of play: Erdoğan said Wednesday that the ground operation would begin "at the most convenient time for us." The Turkish leader seems inclined to push ahead this time, and statements from Washington and Moscow won't necessarily stop him, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute tells Axios.

  • Officials from both the U.S. and Russia told the SDF they were not notified by Turkey prior to the strikes, Mazloum says. The White House did not comment.

The other side: Mazloum tells Axios the SDF is committed to preventing "escalation," but "if the fight does happen, our forces will defend themselves and their people until the last of us."

  • "This time the operation will not be limited and there will be chaos all along the border with Turkey," he warns.

"We believe that President Biden will fulfill his promises and protect the Kurds from ethnic cleansing in the region by the Turks, as he has promised during his presidential campaign," Mazloum says, crediting the administration with standing by those promises up to now.

  • Flashback: During the 2019 offensive, then-candidate Biden said then-President Trump had "sold out" and "betrayed" the SDF by pulling U.S. troops out of the area and seeming to clear the way for Turkey to move in.
  • Mazloum adds that after the SDF’s heavy losses against ISIS, with more than 12,000 soldiers killed, "we believe, and our people do the same, that the U.S. and others have a moral duty to defend the families of these martyrs and the people of this region.”

Between the lines: The Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations have all struggled to balance U.S. relations with its NATO ally Turkey and its Kurdish partners in Syria.

  • Now, the primary U.S. priority is not Syria, but Ukraine, says Cagaptay. Turkey has been a crucial arms supplier to the Ukrainians and a key mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. It also wields a veto on NATO accession for Sweden and Finland.
  • All of that suggests the U.S. is unlikely to "go as hard against Ankara as it has in the past,” Cagaptay says.
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