Opinion | Turkey is playing with fire in Northern Syria

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Turkey’s fixation on alleged Kurdish terrorism reached a dangerous flashpoint this week as Turkish warplanes bombed targets in northern Syria that are dangerously close to US forces there, guarding against a resurgence of Islamic State.

The danger of this latest spasm of Turkish crackdowns was spelled out to me on Wednesday by General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, commander of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. He said that after three days of Turkish bombardment, the SDF may lose their ability to maintain security in prisons and a refugee camp for ISIS fighters and their families.

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“These strikes have already put IS’s mission at risk,” said Colonel Joseph Buccino, a spokesman for US Central Command, which monitors the region. “One of the strikes hit within 130 meters of US personnel, so US forces are at risk. Any expansion of these attacks will increase that risk,” Buccino told me in an email.

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Mazloum, as he is known, said that an hour before our conversation, a Turkish drone had fired on an SDF guard post at the al-Hol refugee camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters. He said he did not know if any of the camp’s residents had escaped because a Turkish drone was still hovering over the camp and it was impossible for US and SDF forces there to safely survey the damage.

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Mazloum said SDF forces are also “at risk right now” as they try to maintain security in 28 makeshift prisons in northern Syria, which house about 12,000 captured ISIS fighters. After a January prison break at Hasaka prison, more than 3,000 of those detainees escaped and it took more than a week to capture most of them and regain control.

Turkey’s justification for the attack on Syrian Kurds is its claim that the SDF and Mazloum himself are linked to the militant Kurdish militia known as the PKK, which it says was responsible for the November 13 Istanbul terror attack. Mazloum told me that his forces were not involved in the attack and expressed sympathy for the victims. As for the allegation that he was personally connected to PKK terrorism, he said “these are just excuses” and that he had worked closely with US and coalition forces for more than eight years.

Northern Syria is a bomb that Turkey, through its reckless actions, seems determined to detonate. When I visited Camp Al-Hol in April with Centcom Commander Gen. Michael “Eric” Kurilla, it housed about 56,000 people, about 70 percent of whom were under 18. We also toured Hasakah prison and the security looked fragile, even without Turkish bombers overhead.

Mazloum said the Turkish offensive began on Monday with an attack on a coalition base in Hasaka, where US special operations forces are helping train the SDF. I also visited this base in April and saw the combat partnership between the United States and the Syrian Kurds that defeated ISIS. The Kurdish-led militia paid a heavy price in that campaign, with 12,000 fighters killed, Mazloum reminded me on Wednesday.

Mazloum said he expected Turkey to soon launch a ground offensive in northern Syria, seeking greater control over Manbij and Kobani, two areas liberated from ISIS by the United States and its SDF partners at a high cost. He said the United States had an “ethical responsibility to protect the Kurds from being ethnically cleansed from this region.” He urged US officials to pressure Turkey to de-escalate its attacks before disaster strikes.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart and warned the Turks against attacking restricted areas around American troops. But a Pentagon official said there was “no sign of that [the Turks] are ready to de-escalate.” As Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria begins to destabilize the U.S.-led coalition’s fragile grip on the murderous remnants of the Islamic State, the wise man begins to wonder: What kind of ally is this?

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