Opinion | Turkey is playing with fire in Northern Syria

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Turkey’s anti-Kurdish counter-terrorist stance reached a dangerous point this week as Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria very close to US forces protecting them from a resurgent Islamic State group.

Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Kurdish military, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, explained to me Wednesday the threat of the latest Turkish crackdown. He said the SDF could lose its ability to secure prisons and refugee camps for ISIS fighters and their families after three days of Turkish bombardment.

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Col. Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for US Central Command, which oversees the region, said: “These strikes put ISIS’s operations at risk.” “One of the strikes hit 130 meters away from US personnel, putting American forces at risk. Prolonging these attacks increases the risk,” Buccino told me via email.

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As far as he knows, Mazloum said, an hour before he spoke with us, a Turkish drone fired at an SDF security post in Al-Hol refugee camp, where families of Islamic State fighters live. He said he did not know if any of the camp’s residents had escaped because Turkish drones were hovering over the camp and U.S. and Soviet forces could not safely survey the damage there.

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Mazloum said SDF forces are at risk right now as they try to secure 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria where about 12,000 captured ISIS fighters are being held. More than 3,000 of those inmates escaped after a prison break in Hasaka prison in January, and it took more than a week to capture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s justification for striking the Syrian Kurds is that the SDF and Mazlum himself are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Kurdish Kurdistan), which is responsible for the November 13 terrorist attack in Istanbul. Mazloum told me his forces were not involved in the attack and offered condolences to the victims. On accusations that he was personally involved in PKK terrorism, he said, “It’s just an excuse” and that he has been working closely with US and coalition forces for more than eight years.

Northern Syria is a bomb because of Turkey’s reckless actions. When I visited the al-Hol camp in April with Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla, the commander of CentCom, it housed about 56,000 people, about 70 percent of whom were under the age of 18. We also toured Hasaka prison, where security was even more fragile. No Turkish bombers.

Mazloum said the Turkish offensive began on Monday when U.S. special operations forces attacked a coalition base in Hasakah that helps train the SDF. I went to the same base in April and saw the fighting partnership between the US and the Syrian Kurds that defeated ISIS. Mazloum reminded me on Wednesday that the Kurdish-led militia had paid a heavy price in the campaign, killing 12,000 fighters.

Mazlum said he expects Turkey to soon launch a ground offensive in northern Syria, seeking to improve its control over the cities of Manbij and Kobani, which the US and its SDF partners liberated from ISIS at great cost. He said, “The United States has an ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed from this region.” He called on US officials to pressure Turkey to scale back its attacks before disaster strikes.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Turkey’s prime minister on Wednesday to warn the Turks against attacking the no-go zone around U.S. troops. But the Pentagon official said, “There are no such signs [the Turks] ready to de-escalate.” As Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria begins to destabilize the killer remnants of the U.S.-led coalition, the wise man begins to wonder: What kind of ally is this?

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