Turkey launched airstrikes against targets in northern and eastern Syria on November 19. The bombardment, using warplanes, drones, and artillery, killed many civilians and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s primary partner in the multilateral coalition against ISIS. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that airstrikes are “just the beginning.”
There has been well-documented collusion between Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and Syrian jihadists. Beginning in 2016, approximately 60,000 militants from more than 100 countries passed through Turkey to Syria. MIT provided them with logistical support, funds, and weapons, even arranging medical care in Turkish hospitals for jihadis wounded on the battlefield.
In contrast to Turkey’s duplicity, the Kurds are America’s indispensable allies. The SDF—with Kurds at its core—has been the tip of the spear against ISIS. Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s commander-in-chief, told me that 12,000 SDF members have been killed and 24,000 have been seriously injured fighting ISIS at America’s behest.
Now, Turkey is massing more troops on the Syrian border, threatening a massive cross-border operation. Turkey wants to inspire a jailbreak so ISIS members can join this stage of the fight.
Located in northern Syria, the Al Hol camp is a reservoir of Islamists ready to fight. The camp was established in 1991 during the Gulf War as a haven for Iraqi refugees. It is twelve kilometers from the Iraqi-Syrian border and seventy kilometers from the regions occupied by the Turkish military east of the Euphrates River in Syria.
There are 55,000 ISIS family members at Al Hol. The ISIS population is comprised of 25,000 Iraqi refugees, 20,000 Syrian families, and 8,000 foreign families. The camp is home to more than 10,000 hardcore fighters from fifty-two countries. Turkey seeks to advance its objectives by creating chaos so these fighters can escape.
In 2019, Turkey invaded Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) and bombed the vicinity of the Ain Issa camp. ISIS families took advantage of the chaos and fled toward Turkey, but were apprehended by the SDF. In January 2022, Turkish-backed jihadis organized a prison break from the Hasakah camp. Again, the SDF thwarted the operation. The area around Jerkin Prison in Qamishlo was also targeted by Turkish air strikes, which helped ISIS fighters escape and join the Syrian National Army, a terrorist force under Turkey’s control.
SDF members have families in Syrian villages along the border with Turkey. They fear for the safety of their wives and children and feel compelled to protect their loved ones.
Turkey’s armed forces are massing at the border, ready to invade. They will attack the SDF unless the United States deters them.
The SDF expects more from the Biden administration. President Joe Biden should make a public statement exposing Turkey’s warmongering, while Secretary Antony Blinken should visit Ankara to warn that there will be a steep price for aggression against the SDF.
Turkey justifies its aggression by claiming that the SDF was responsible for the Istanbul bombing that killed six people and wounded eighty-one on November 13. The SDF laments the loss of life and has called for an investigation. This claim is fake news that Erdogan is using to justify Turkish aggression.
Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, has accused the United States of colluding with the Kurds to organize the bombing. This absurd accusation should be investigated; by implicating the United States, Soylu has opened the door for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the incident.
We can speculate about Erdogan’s motives. Domestic support for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is eroding dramatically during the run-up to Turkey’s June 2023 national elections. He believes that calling Kurds terrorists and killing Kurds will rally Turkey’s nationalist base in support of the AKP.
A full and independent investigation will exonerate the Kurds of any involvement in the bombing. Meanwhile, the United States should support the SDF to maintain order at camps where ISIS families reside. Erdogan wants to create chaos so ISIS families can escape and join the fray.
The United States and the SDF are natural allies. They share a commitment to democratic federalism, the emancipation of women, and environmental sustainability. Turkey may be a NATO ally, but Kurds are America’s friends in the fight against violent extremism.
David Phillips is Director of the Program on Human Rights and Peacebuilding at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.