The rising tide of violence has sent waves of fear through a region that is no stranger to threats from its neighbour. The Turkish government has fought Kurdish militants at home for decades and it views the largely 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 take as a green light from then-President Donald Trump.
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Erdogan is now threatening to repeat that effort with new ground forces, portraying the strikes as retaliation for a suicide bombing in central Istanbul that killed six people and injured dozens more on a busy thoroughfare last week. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
“Those who condemn the Istanbul bombing with crocodile tears revealed their true colors with their reactions to the operation we started 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 US-led military coalition joined the fight against Islamic State forces in 2014 after the militants seized a large swath of land. Three and a half years after the official defeat of the group, hundreds of American soldiers are still stationed in territory that is beyond the control of the Syrian government.
In an interview with The Washington Post, General Mazloum Kobane Abdi, the SDF commander-in-chief and Washington’s strongest ally in Syria, urged Western allies to oppose any further military action, arguing that international pressure could make the difference between an ongoing 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 Mazloum, who goes by his nom de guerre. “This war, if it takes place, will not benefit anyone. It will affect many lives, there will be massive waves of displacement and a humanitarian crisis.
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In the town of Kobane near the Turkish border, residents slept in hallways as shelling rattled their window frames. Families stuffed their belongings into backpacks and dragged their mattresses to nearby orchards, hoping they would be safer out in the open.
“It was so cold,” said Nesrin Salim, 32, as she hung her children’s clothes on a washing line. “My only concern is my children. I can’t think of anything else, I don’t want them to hear those explosions.
In a brief statement, the Biden administration called for de-escalation, but did not condemn the violence. “The United States expresses its sincere condolences for the loss of civilian life in Syria and Turkey,” the State Department said.
As the Turkish attacks continue, salvoes have also been fired from Syria into Turkey. A child and a teacher were killed and six people were injured on Monday when mortar shells hit a border area in Turkey’s Gaziantep province.
Mazloum denied the SDF was responsible for the attacks, saying the force was only looking to defuse the situation. But in other public media, the SDF vowed revenge. “They have killed many of our people, and we will fight back,” spokesman Farhad Shami tweeted on Monday.
On Wednesday, Shami reposted a tweet from Biden in 2019, accusing Trump of abandoning the US-backed force. “Today, under your presidency, the same is happening,” Shami wrote. “Our people and our forces have the right to know your position regarding the Turkish aggression against our people.”
Mustafa al-Ali in Kobane, Syria contributed to this report.