The United States’ chief partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria said he has credible intelligence that Turkey is preparing a ground invasion of Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria in keeping with Ankara’s threats.
Mazlum Kobane, also known as Mazlum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, told a news conference via Zoom that Turkey was gathering forces around the Kurdish-controlled towns of Manbij and Kobani and that Turkish-backed Sunni opposition fighters were building up between Manbij and Tell Rifaat. Speaking through a translator, Kobane vowed that his forces were “ready to repel the attacks and to defend our lands.”
Kobane rued the lack of Western pushback from the United States and Russia, noting that Turkey’s threats were “far louder” than the condemnatory statements “made by our allies.”
He said “stronger statements are needed” to deter a Turkish incursion that would undo years of joint efforts with the US-led coalition to stamp out IS for good. “In parallel with Turkish air and artillery attacks we have seen an uptick in activation of IS cells,” he added.
Yet the SDF has had to pause operations against IS to prepare for a Turkish offensive that could take place within a week if “if they don’t see a strong reaction from Russia or the United States,” Kobane said. He looked atypically dispirited and pale.
Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said Tuesday that Turkey wouldn’t divulge a date for its ground assault. “It could be tomorrow, next week or anytime,” he said. “Operations can be done in different ways. These operations can be done at any time. As it has been done before, it will continue to be done in the future.”
Turkey has been attacking the Kurdish-controlled zone for more than 10 days with artillery and F-16 fighter jets and drones, killing at least 11 civilians and numerous SDF and Syrian regime troops. On Nov. 22 a Turkish drone struck the perimeter of a joint US/SDF base in Hasakah, where Kobane works cheek to jowl with US special forces, diplomats and aid officials deployed in the region.
Al-Monitor has learned that all US civilian staff, including diplomats, have been evacuated to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as Turkey continues to target SDF assets as well as critical civilian infrastructure, notably oil installations, power plants and grain silos. Medical facilities have also been hit.
David Eubank, the founder of the Free Burma Rangers, an aid organization that operates in conflict zones, was in northeast Syria up until Sunday. He told Al-Monitor that the locals were “terrorized” by ongoing Turkish attacks and felt deeply betrayed by the United States. Asked if civilian areas were being targeted, Eubank responded, “Absolutely.”
A regional official speaking not for attribution to Al-Monitor confirmed today that the Americans were still in Erbil.
A State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor on background, “As the Department of Defense has said, recent airstrikes in Syria directly threatened the safety of US personnel who are working in Syria.” The spokesperson declined to confirm that US personnel had left northeast Syria, saying, “We do not as a general policy comment on the movement of personnel.”
In the past when Turkey threatened to attack, coalition troops would make a show of force, flying large US flags on their vehicles as they drove through the imperiled towns. There have been no such displays this time.
The spokesperson did not respond to Al-Monitor’s query as to whether the United States was mediating between Turkey and the SDF to prevent a Turkish ground offensive, saying the United States did not comment on private diplomatic conversations. Well-informed sources briefing Al-Monitor said Turkey was spurning all mediation efforts and is on the warpath.
Kobane reinforced that view, saying that contrary to media reports, the commander of Russian forces in Syria, Alexander Chayko, had not made any demands of him during their recent meeting but that he had told the Russians to adhere to the terms of the cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia to end Turkey’s last invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019. Manbij and Kobani, formerly under US protection, were ceded to regime and Russian forces. The Biden administration could well cite former President Donald Trump’s responsibility for the withdrawal of US troops from those areas for its inability to keep Turkey out of them. Al Jazeera and al-Araby al-Jadeed reported today that Russia was seeking to convince Damascus and the SDF to withdraw its fighters from Tell Rifaat to prevent a Turkish ground offensive. Turkey has given Moscow “more time” to broker such an agreement, the Arab media outlets reported.
Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces were meant to leave Tell Rifaat and Manbij under the Sochi accord. But Ankara insists they never did and use Tell Rifaat to launch attacks against Turkish forces inside Afrin, the Kurdish-majority city that was occupied by Turkey in 2018.
But Iran, the other big stakeholder in Syria and unmentioned in the reports, would need to be persuaded as well. Kobane’s tone suggested the SDF was in no mood to cede further territory.
Kobane said there were more regime troops than SDF forces deployed along the Kurdish-controlled zone’s common borders with Turkey in keeping with that accord. But Turkey is violating that agreement and a separate accord that was brokered by the United States in 2019, hitting targets deep inside the Kurdish-controlled zone, including the joint US/SDF facility in Hasakah. Kobane said Turkish attacks were putting some million civilians' lives at risk.
The State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor, “We strongly oppose military action that further destabilizes the lives of communities in Syria and risks the Global Coalition’s hard-earned progress against [IS].” The spokesperson continued, “We have consistently communicated to Turkey and to our local Syrian partners our serious concerns about the impact of escalation on our [defeating-IS] goals and on civilians on both sides of the border.”
Ankara justifies its actions on the grounds that the SDF’s lead component, the YPG and its allies in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were behind the Nov. 13 bomb attack in Istanbul that killed six civilians. It’s been vowing revenge ever since.
On Monday Turkish authorities said they had further proof that the YPG was responsible for the bomb that detonated on Istiklal, one of Istanbul’s busiest streets. It said a YPG identification card was found on the brother of Bilal Hasan, one of the chief suspects in the attack. Kobane said that Hasan had no connection whatsoever to the YPG. In an earlier interview with Al-Monitor, Kobane said that the Syrian woman arrested by Turkish authorities for allegedly planting the bomb was connected to IS. Turkey says she admitted to be acting on behalf of the YPG and the PKK. The PKK has been waging an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and has targeted civilians in the past.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been threatening a ground offensive for months and Washington and the Kremlin have refused to give him the green light. But the war in Ukraine has upended their calculations. With its control over the Bosporus Straits, a critical supply route for Russian and Ukrainian grain, Turkey has emerged as a leading power broker in the Ukraine conflict, supplying drones to Kyiv while refusing to join Western sanctions on the Kremlin.
Turkey’s resurgent strategic clout appears to have come at the Kurds’ expense.
Ilham Ahmed, who heads the SDF’s political arm the Syrian Democratic Council, is expected to travel to Washington in the coming days to lobby the Biden administration and Congress, where bipartisan support for the Kurds runs strong. Al-Monitor was unable to reach Ahmed for confirmation.
But having already slapped bans on military sales to Turkey over its previous invasion of Syria and its refusal to get rid of Russian S-400 anti-missile batteries, Congress’ options for more punishment are limited.
Many tie Erdogan’s latest bout of bellicosity to efforts to buoy his nationalist base ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held by June 18, 2023. While the elections undoubtedly figure in Erdogan’s thinking, Turkey’s hostility to the autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity is rooted in fears that it will further fan separatism among its restive Kurdish population. What makes the situation all the more intolerable is that many former PKK leaders are in charge. Worse, the United States, Turkey’s top NATO ally, which designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997 and aided in the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, has been arming and training the YPG since 2014, when they launched their joint campaign to defeat IS. Kobane has repeatedly stated that he wants peaceful relations with Ankara.
Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting today, Erdogan renewed vows to move against the Syrian Kurds, saying, “Just as we will not seek anyone’s authorization, nor will we provide justification to anyone.” Erdogan added that Ankara's determination to create a 30-kilometer (10-mile) deep security belt inside Syria "is growing with every new [attack against us].”