Kurds use Syria incursion to chip away at Erdogan

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Article Summary
The Syrian Democratic Forces, after having contributed to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well as an IS spokesman, push for a greater US condemnation of Turkey's latest incursion into Syria.

In the wake of a US raid that took the life of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend, the Pentagon-backed Syrian Kurds are hoping to convince the Donald Trump administration to take a harder line against the weekslong Turkish incursion into Syria.

As the Pentagon-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) touted more US raids in northern Syria, including a Monday strike that US officials said left IS spokesman Abu Hasan al-Muhajir dead near Jarablus, the Kurdish-led group began to mount a public relations offensive demanding information about what Turkey knew about Baghdadi’s whereabouts.

In a tweet today, President Trump touted the significance of Muhajir’s death, considered a possible successor to the IS leader. But the quick succession of strikes also raised questions, as the IS leaders’ demolished hideout in the Syrian city of Barisha was just four miles from the Turkish border, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said.

“The SDF shared information of Baghdadi's whereabouts — and that he was located in Idlib — with US in May,” Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, tweeted Monday night. “Turkey which has carried out countless airstrikes deep inside KRI targeting certain people has questions to answer on Baghdadi case.”

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Trump administration officials did not immediately respond to questions about Turkey’s knowledge of the operation that took out Baghdadi, though Ankara was informed just before the attack commenced.

A senior US official recently told Al-Monitor that many in the Trump administration no longer view Turkey as an ally in the wake of the incursion into Syria.

Though Russia indicated in a statement today that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, had pulled back 30 kilometers (19 miles) from border areas patrolled by Turkey and Moscow, the United Nations says 106,000 people remain displaced from Hasakah, Raqqa, and Aleppo since Turkish forces crossed into the war-torn country Oct. 9.

Experts said Baghdadi’s death in territory where Turkey has major influence among Syrian opposition elements is likely to raise concerns about Ankara's ability to fight terror groups, such as IS, in Syria.

“It raises broader questions of their plan to keep [IS] out of their areas,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “I just think it’s hard and made harder by [how] weak and disorganized the [Turkish-supported opposition] is.”

Reports on Monday also indicated that the SDF helped the United States carry out raids in Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled city before it was raided by Turkish forces in 2018.

A source with knowledge of SDF operations said IS fighters “can blend in easily in the rebel-held areas,” which are “less exposed” than areas liberated by the Syrian Kurds from the militant group in the north. The Department of Defense "knows the Kurds more than any other nonstate actors in Syria, so they will rely on them to conduct these operations,” the source said.

But the situation on the ground appeared to get more complex today, even after YPG forces reportedly deployed out of border areas. Turkish-supported opposition groups and Syrian regime forces clashed near the city of Ras al-Ain, killing six pro-regime forces, according to the wire service Agence France-Presse.

As US troops redeployed to oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province over the weekend, top administration officials acknowledged that the small American force would face increased threats as Russian and Syria vie to take control of petroleum resources.

“Despite Baghdadi's death, the security situation in Syria remains complex,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a Pentagon briefing Monday. “Multiple state and nonstate actors continue to vie for control of territory and resources within the country.”

Meanwhile, a UN-moderated panel tasked with drafting a fresh Syrian constitution began meetings in Geneva today with 150 representatives from the Assad regime, the opposition, and civil society groups, after several successive failed attempts. The Syrian Kurds are not formally represented in the grouping.

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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