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The Takeaway: Syria's Kurds turn to US as Turkey threatens ground operation

Plus, a look at Iran's enrichment activities, twin bombings in Jerusalem and the detention of another US citizen in Saudi Arabia.
Syria Kurds

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warns of a possible new ground incursion into neighboring Syria, officials from the Kurdish-controlled region are pleading with the Biden administration to intervene.

Ilham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria, has written to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the administration to speak out forcefully against a potential Turkish invasion, Al-Monitor has learned. 

In a letter to Blinken sent Tuesday, the SDC’s executive committee president described concerns that Turkey was seeking to occupy new Syrian land with its threatened ground incursion. Ahmed argued that a renewed offensive would undermine the SDF's ability to fight the Islamic State as well as secure the notoriously overcrowded Al-Hol camp that’s holding displaced families linked to the extremist group.  

Ahmed’s appeal comes as Turkish warplanes continue to target towns across northern Syria in apparent retaliation for a bombing on Nov. 13 that killed six people and injured more than 80 others in central Istanbul. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and in her letter, Ahmed denied any involvement by the SDF. 

Syrian Kurdish officials say more than two dozen have been killed, including civilians, since Sunday in Turkish strikes targeting the People's Protection Units (YPG), the militia that forms the backbone of the SDF. A day after the Pentagon called for de-escalation, two SDF fighters were killed Tuesday in a suspected Turkish drone strike within 130 meters of a base used by American troops, Jared Szuba reports. 

Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters remains a source of tension in its relationship with Ankara, which views them as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both Turkey and the United States label the PKK, which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state, a terrorist group. 

On Monday, Turkish officials blamed Kurdish militants for a mortar attack that killed two people — a 5-year-old boy and a teacher — in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep. 

Reached for comment, a Turkish official said the latest military operation in Syria, dubbed "Claw-Sword," is aimed at "ensuring the protection of the Turkish borders and striking at the root of terrorism." 

The Biden administration says Turkey has a right to defend itself but warns cross-border violence could undermine Ankara and Washington's shared goal of defeating Islamic State militants, who the US military estimates number between 6,000 to 10,000 across Syria and Iraq. Nearly four years after the collapse of IS's self-declared caliphate, several hundred US troops remain stationed in the Kurdish-run territory to help quash what remains of the terrorist group.  

The US has “consistently communicated our serious concerns to Turkey, in public and private,” a State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor. “We have urged Turkey against such operations, just as we have urged our Syrian partners against attacks or escalation.”

Such statements “are absolutely not strong enough,” SDF commander Mazlum Kobane told Amberin Zaman on Tuesday. “They need to do more,” he said of the Biden administration. (You can read his full interview here.) 

But Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, cautioned that the SDF shouldn’t rely on the United States alone to deter Turkish military action. 

“Turkey is an important NATO ally for the US, and no matter how bad the relations are, there is a floor to it,” Khalifa said. “The US can — and probably will — impose some sanctions on Turkey if there is a Turkish ground incursion in specific areas, but beyond that, they won’t blow their relations with Turkey over it.”

Officials with the Turkish Embassy in Washington say deconfliction channels with the Americans remain open. On Wednesday, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Yasar Guler. The Pentagon description of their call made no mention of Syria, but said they discussed “several items of mutual strategic interest.”

Also Wednesday, Sinam Mohamad, the SDC's top representative in Washington, held meetings with Biden administration officials. “They told us, ‘We don’t want the destabilization of the region,’” Mohamad said. “But is Turkey listening? No, I don’t think so.”

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Iran ‘deluded’ to use nuclear escalation as leverage 

Iran is now enriching uranium at its underground Fordow plant to one step away from weapons grade levels. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director General Rafael Grossi confirmed Iran’s claims on Tuesday that it had begun producing uranium enriched to 60 percent at a second nuclear plant. 

It comes after the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors approved a resolution last week ordering Iran cooperate with a years-long investigation into undeclared uranium traces. Talks to revive the landmark nuclear deal derailed after the Iranians insisted the UN watchdog drop the inquiry

A State Department spokesperson slammed what Washington views as an attempt by Tehran to build leverage with the IAEA. 

“Iran's apparent notion that it could somehow pressure the IAEA or its member states on the issue of ongoing safeguards investigations … by further escalating its uranium enrichment activities is deluded,” the spokesperson said. 

As Ben Caspit reported for us, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi met with top officials in Washington this week to share new intelligence about Iran’s enrichment intentions. Despite US assurances otherwise, Israel remains concerned that the Biden administration could resume indirect negotiations over the nuclear deal now that the midterm elections are behind it. 

Two Americans injured in Jerusalem explosions 

Two US citizens were among those injured in twin explosions in Jerusalem that killed a 16-year-old boy at a bus stop on Wednesday, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides confirmed in a tweet.

Israeli police are searching for the suspected Palestinian assailants whose bombings injured more than 20 people. Police believe the explosions were coordinated, and caused by remotely detonated explosive devices packed with nails. 

The attack comes as incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds talks to form a new right-wing coalition government expected to take a harsher stance on Palestinian terrorism. 

The Democratic administration in Washington is concerned about the likely appointment of ultranationalist Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir as public security minister, which would put him in charge of the Israeli police forces. Rina Bassist reports that Ben Gvir, who was quick to arrive at the scene of the first attack on Wednesday, told the crowd that Israel “must go back to targeting killings.” 

US citizen detained in Saudi Arabia amid OPEC tensions 

A US citizen from Michigan has been held in Saudi Arabia without charge for three weeks, his lawyer told Al-Monitor, as relations between Riyadh and Washington remained strained over oil supply cuts. 

The details of Mohammed Salem’s arrest are murky. The 63-year-old Yemeni-American was visiting the holy city of Mecca on Nov. 1 to perform the umrah pilgrimage when he got into an altercation with security guards, his family’s Michigan-based lawyer Abdallah Moughni said. Out of frustration, Salem later told two men who identified themselves as Libyan that “if it were not for Mecca and Medina, we would burn this country to the ground.”

The men revealed themselves to be Saudi government agents and arrested him, Moughni said. Salem is now in a maximum security Dhahban Central Prison and is not allowed contact with his family.

“Saudi Arabia should be able to investigate any situation they believe could cause harm to their country,” Moughni said. “But to detain someone for speaking out against a government in a negative way for 20 days without any legal representation – it's just wrong.”

The story, which first appeared in local Detroit media, follows the jailing of Saudi American Saad Ibrahim Almadi and brief detention of US citizen Carly Morris this month. Several other dual citizens are held under travel ban in the kingdom.  

Other top stories from our contributors

• Fehim Tastekin explains why Iran is increasingly worried over Azerbaijani and Turkish geopolitical gains in the region.

• Netanyahu’s deal to legalize dozens of West Bank settlements has further dimmed hope for a peace process, Ahmad Melhem writes.   

• Nazlan Ertan analyzes what the enthusiastic handshake between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Erdogan on the World Cup sidelines means for their countries’ budding rapprochement. 

Qatar spent $300 billion on the World Cup, making it far and away the most expensive tournament ever. For Al-Monitor PRO, Samuel Wendel explores scenarios for how Doha's big gamble can pay off.

Jared Szuba contributed to this report.

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