U.S. troops to expand patrols in Syria amid tension with Turkey

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The Pentagon is preparing to resume all ground operations alongside its Kurdish partners in northern Syria, officials said on Tuesday, a move that risks further souring relations with NATO ally Turkey, which blames the Kurds for a deadly bombing in Istanbul last month and threatened a ground assault. in retaliation.

US commanders restricted such movements after Turkey launched air and artillery strikes against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which, together with US military personnel, monitored the persistent presence of the Islamic State in the region. The two groups have made only limited joint movements in recent days, conducting security patrols and transporting supplies between bases, officials said.

Three US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said Turkey may follow through on its threat to send ground forces to northern Syria this month, potentially endangering Americans there and upending what has been relatively stable. situation for several years.

“We are concerned about any action that could jeopardize hard-won gains in security and stability in Syria,” Colonel Joseph Buccino, spokesman for the US military, said in a statement. “Additionally, we are concerned about the security of the SDF, our vetted, recognized and trusted partners in a location where we have withdrawn most troops.”

The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Turkey blames Kurdish militants in deadly Istanbul bombing

About 900 US troops are deployed in Syria, most sharing bases with SDF personnel in the north. These partner forces, Buccino said, are integral “to the ongoing effort to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.” Among its responsibilities, the SDF oversees the al-Hol refugee camp, where tens of thousands of people – many of them families of Islamic State militants – live in squalid conditions, unable to return to their countries. of origin. SDF raids on the facility have rounded up hundreds of suspected ISIS operatives this year, according to US officials.

Turkey sees America’s allies as a subset of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Washington and Ankara have called a terrorist organization, and Turkish leaders have accused the United States of complicity in the bombing. Istanbul. The blast ripped through a crowded area of ​​the city on November 13, killing at least six people and injuring dozens more. Turkish officials arrested a woman after the bombing and claimed she was sent from northern Syria to carry out the attack.

SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi denied that his group was involved.

Turkey has followed a string of cross-border strikes, including one late last month that Buccino said came within 150 yards of US personnel.

Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesman, said on Tuesday he had received indications that a limited incursion by Turkish or Turkish-backed forces could take place. “The Syrian Democratic Forces have no choice but to protect their people, the region, and fight to the end,” he said.

Shami accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of seeking to rally nationalist voters ahead of a potentially difficult re-election campaign early next year.

“If the offensive happens,” he added, “it will lead to the displacement of more than 5 million people who live here, and ISIS will be active again.”

Mazloum, the SDF commander, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece over the weekend that he believed the airstrike near US personnel “was an assassination attempt.” saying it happened near the town of Hasakah. He claimed that Turkey had murdered several of his colleagues this year. He offered his condolences to Turkey for the Istanbul bombing, called for peace talks between Turks and Kurds and said past Turkish incursions into northern Syria had enabled pockets of the Islamic State to bounce back from the near total defeat of the group in 2019.

“We call on the international community to take immediate concrete steps to prevent a Turkish invasion and promote a political solution to the Kurdish conflict based on democracy, coexistence and equal rights,” Mazloum wrote. “The existence of our people and the security of the region depend on it.”

US calls for de-escalation as Turkey threatens ground attack on Syria

The situation marks the latest chapter in an eight-year balancing act for US officials, who, despite Turkey’s objections, turned to the SDF to counter Islamic State after failing in earlier attempts to find a reliable partner in Syria.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke last week with Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defense minister, in part out of concern about airstrikes that “directly threatened the safety of American personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement last week.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, met on November 23 with his Turkish counterpart, General Yaşar Güler. By then, Turkish forces had launched more than 100 air, drone and artillery strikes in northern Syria.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules established by the Biden administration, said the United States continues to “make it clear privately and publicly that we strongly oppose military action, including a ground incursion”, by Turkey in Syria.

“The United States did not approve of Turkey’s recent strikes in Syria,” the official said, adding that while “Turkey has legitimate security concerns related to terrorism, we do not believe a military escalation that destabilizes the situation in Syria will resolve these concerns.”

Bradley Bowman, a military and foreign policy analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that without the SDF, Islamic State would likely be still hold large swaths of territory, or that the US military suffered thousands of casualties trying to eradicate the militants on its own.

“If we want to keep the caliphate defeated and keep a lid on terrorist organizations, we need people on the ground, and that’s the SDF,” he said. “It is in our interest to continue to support them and make them successful, and Turkey needs to understand that.”

Bowman said that while some US military officials continue to enjoy good relations with their Turkish counterparts, Turkey’s behavior in other regards has not been emblematic of other NATO allies. He cited Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia and its reluctance to allow Sweden and Finland to join the military alliance.

“I just keep seeing them do problematic things,” Bowman said. The administration, he said, must make the point to Ankara that it must do more to remain a “good ally”.

Loveluck reported from Baghdad.

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