The attacks have sent ripples of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbor. The Turkish government has fought Kurdish militants at home for decades, and it views the Kurdish dominated SDF as a threat to its national security. Turkish forces last invaded the enclave in 2019, after what Erdogan’s administration appeared to view as a greenlight from President Donald Trump.
Erdogan is threatening to repeat that assault with fresh ground forces, framing the strikes as retaliation for an attack in central Istanbul that killed six people and wounded dozens more on a bustling thoroughfare last week. No group has declared responsibility for the attack.
“Those who condemn the attack in Istanbul with crocodile tears have revealed their real faces with their reactions to the operation that we began immediately after,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his party gathered in Ankara. “We have the right to take care of ourselves.”
A U.S.-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the militants seized 41,000 square miles across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the U.S. quickly chose Kurdish-led troops as their partner force, and three and a half years after the militants were routed, hundreds of American troops are still stationed in territory now under threat of invasion.
It was a partial American withdrawal in 2019 that again redrew the map of northeastern Syria, paving the way for Turkey to invade as the U.S. ceded territory once patrolled by its forces to a Turkish-backed Syrian militia force and in other places to the Syrian army and its Russian backers.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Gen. Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF’s top commander and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to strongly oppose further Turkish attacks, arguing that Western pressure could avert a ground operation.
“It’s not news to anyone that Erdogan has been threatening the ground operation for months, but he could launch this operation now,” said Abdi. “This war, if it happens, won’t benefit anybody. It will affect many lives, there will be massive waves of displacement, and a humanitarian crisis.”
On Wednesday night, the SDF said that it would be temporarily ceasing its operations against ISIS to focus on combating the Turkish assault.
The violence puts the United States in a bind. Its decision to back a Kurdish-led ground force in the fight against the Islamic State put it at odds with NATO-ally Turkey, and it has struggled ever since to balance commitments to both. The war in Ukraine has complicated things further, analysts say, as Washington looks to Ankara for support in Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, isolating Russia economically, and bolstering a deal allowing the export of Ukrainian grain to shore up the world’s food supply.
“Ukraine being the overwhelming priority means looking for ways to keep Ankara onside, as U.S.-Turkey relations have grown increasingly fraught over time,” said Jonathan Lord, Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.
“There’s likely little appetite for meaningfully engaging Erdogan on Syria, which often engenders a highly emotional response from the Turkish side, particularly if it puts Washington’s objectives in Europe at greater risk.”
So far, the Biden administration has carefully avoided being seen to take a side. “What we have said publicly, is that these strikes, from all sides, risk our mission, which is to defeat ISIS,” Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon’s deputy press secretary, told reporters Tuesday.
“We’ve been consistent on this,” she replied, when asked whether the U.S. was concerned about widening military operations in Syria. “We oppose all of the strikes that are happening right now from all sides.”
Turkey began threatening a new ground incursion into Syria earlier this year, but never followed through, resorting instead to selective attacks in northern Syria. The threat has been seen by analysts as part of election year politics, with Erdogan facing a potentially tough reelection campaign early next year and hoping to rally nationalist-minded voters.
On Wednesday morning, the SDF said that at least 45 locations had been hit over three days — among them, several medical facilities and a school building. In the border town of Derik, a reporter with the Kurdish Hawar News Agency, Essam Abdullah, was killed in a Turkish airstrike as he reported on an earlier attack in the same area, the outlet reported.
In a post on Twitter, SDF spokesman Farhad Shami reposted a message from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the U.S.-backed force. “Today under your presidency, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your stance regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”
In the town of Kobane near the Turkish border, some residents have slept in hallways as strikes shook their window frames. Others dragged their mattresses to sleep in nearby orchards in the hope that they would be safer there.
Nesrin Salim, 32, said that she had run home through the night to grab blankets and then hurried her children to a cluster of trees where other local families were gathering.
“We were in a panic; we were confused. We didn’t know when we would be hit,” Salim said, recalling the attacks as she hung her children’s clothes out to dry Wednesday morning. “My only concern is my kids. I can’t think of anything else.”
Fear that Washington’s interest in northeastern Syria is waning has left the SDF increasingly reliant on the Syrian government and its ally Russia for protection against Turkey. Alexander Lavrentyev, Russia’s special envoy to Syria, said Wednesday that Moscow’s “close contact” with the Turkish Defense Ministry could prevent an escalation.
As Turkish attacks continue, there have also been salvos fired from Syria into Turkey. A child and a teacher were killed and six people, among them a woman who was 5-months pregnant, were hurt Monday when mortars hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province.
Mazloum denied that the SDF was responsible for the strikes, saying that the force sought only to de-escalate the situation. But in other public media, the SDF has vowed to take revenge. “They have killed many of our people, and we will retaliate,” Shami tweeted Monday.
Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria, Karoun Demirjian in Washington and Kareem Fahim in Doha contributed to this report.