Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, gather near a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle during an exercise with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on September 7, 2022.

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, gather near a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle during an exercise with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on September 7, 2022. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Turkish Airstrikes Have Slowed the Fight Against ISIS, Officials Say

SDF commander, Pentagon spokesman call on Ankara to cease “escalatory” actions.

Turkish airstrikes and the threat of another incursion are distracting Kurdish forces from fighting ISIS, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces said Tuesday.

“Our joint work alongside international coalition forces here have been…temporarily paused against ISIS because of the recent airstrikes,” Gen. Mazloum Abdi said through a translator during a virtual press conference.

A Pentagon spokesman said that U.S. forces are doing fewer anti-ISIS patrols with the Kurdish militia group.

“We have reduced the number of patrols because, again, we do these in partnering with the SDF, and so they have reduced the number of patrols that they're doing and so that therefore necessitates us to reduce the patrols,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said during a Tuesday afternoon press briefing. “We've not redeployed any of our folks. We continue to stay very focused on countering the ISIS threat. And so no diminished capability in terms of that.”

For several years, U.S. forces have worked with SDF troops to fight ISIS in the region. There are currently about 900 U.S. troops in Syria, both conventional and special operators, said Col. Joe Buccino, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.

In recent weeks, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Kurdish militias for a Nov. 15 bombing in Istanbul, conducted retaliatory airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and threatened a new ground incursion into Syria.

At his press conference, Abdi said ISIS, not the SDF, was to blame for the attack.

The SDF is primarily made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which Turkey considers part of the terrorist group Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Last week, a Pentagon statement expressed concern about Turkey’s “escalating actions” and said the airstrikes had “directly threatened the safety of U.S. personnel who are working in Syria with local partners to defeat ISIS and maintain custody of more than ten thousand ISIS detainees.”

On Tuesday, Ryder again called for restraint and staying focused on defeating ISIS.  

“The continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardize the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against ISIS and would destabilize the region,” he said.

In October 2019, Turkey mounted an incursion into northeastern Syria against SDF troops along the border, declaring that it wanted to set up a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees. Turkey still controls some of this cross-border territory, according to the BBC.

Abdi said the SDF believes Turkey is preparing for a ground invasion, based on statements from Turkish officials and their own intelligence reports. He said there needed to be “stronger statements,” against such an operation by “all the players who care,” alluding to the U.S. and Russia.

Abdi said Erdogan’s recent statements about a new incursion are more serious than earlier ones because the recent airstrikes occurred over a wider area, targeted civilian infrastructure, and were “aiming to destroy…the autonomous administration of the region and to undermine all our efforts.”

“Regarding the timeline…we do believe that the Turkish state want to launch this operation, but so far, we believe they are still thinking about reaction of countries and position of countries like the United States and Russia,” he said. “Militarily, it is a matter of a week if the Turks are not seeing strong opposition from actors like the United States and Russia.”

Abdi believes the operation would occur along the entire border between Syria and Turkey, and they are already seeing troops build ups, including some gathering near Manbij and Kobani.

“Syrian Democratic Forces are ready to repel the attacks of the Turks and their proxies. Alongside our people, we will defend our land and repel [these] attacks,” he said.

ISIS appears to be taking advantage of the growing volatility in the region. Abdi said they have seen “additional movements and additional activities of ISIS cells,” because of Turkey’s airstrikes.

The SDF also maintain security for ISIS detention centers in Syria, including the infamous al-Hol displaced persons camp that has nearly 60,000 people living there. The head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Michael Kurilla called the camp’s situation an “international crisis that requires an international solution, and the only permanent solution is the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of camp residents.” President Joe Biden’s administration is working with several countries to repatriate people from the camp, NBC News reported.

Abdi said the security situation in these centers is “not very good” and they need to review how they protect them.

“We're receiving reports about additional ISIS planning to attack detention centers and the camp as well,” he said. “So, in order for us…to be able to move freely and to provide the same security level that we were providing all this time to the detention centers and the camp, we need just Turkish airstrikes and targeting to stop.”