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Turkish Airstrikes in Syria Jeopardize War Against ISIS, US Says

Turkish F-16D
The US is concerned that Turkish airstrikes against targets in northern Syria will negatively impact operations against ISIS. Credit: Aldo Bidini / GFDL 1.2 / Wikimedia Commons

The rising intensity of Turkish airstrikes on targets in Syria has jeopardized operations against ISIS, according to US officials.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are mostly bolstered by units from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), have said they have had to scale down anti-ISIS patrols due to concerns over Turkish airstrikes and a possible ground incursion.

US special forces work closely with the YPG on the ground in Syria, but the Turkish government has designated the group a terrorist organization.


On Tuesday, November 29th, the commander of the SDF, General Mazloum Abdi, said that Turkish airstrikes were making it difficult for the group to maintain a high frequency of operations against ISIS. The SDF and YPG frequently conduct patrols with Western partners like the US.

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

US Brigadier General Patrick Ryder echoed Gen. Abdi’s remarks and confirmed that the pace of operations had slowed.

“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…[which] therefore necessitates us to reduce the patrols,” Brig. Gen. Ryder said.

The airstrikes intensified earlier this month when the Turkish air force bombed towns in northern Syria on November 26th. Artillery and drones were used in addition to aircraft.

Last week, Brig. Gen. Ryder released a statement on behalf of the US Department of Defense (DOD) calling for “immediate de-escalation.”

The statement reads: “This escalation threatens the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s years-long progress to degrade and defeat ISIS. Recent air strikes in Syria 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.”

The Pentagon added that it was “concerned by reports of the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure,” but that it recognized Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns.”

A Turkish F-16, pictured in 2019
Turkish airstrikes and artillery bombardments were carried out in retaliation for a bombing in Istanbul this month that killed six people. Credit: CeeGee / CC BY-SA 4.0 / via Wikimedia Commons

Turkish operations in Syria

This month, Turkish officials blamed the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) for a terrorist attack in Istanbul that killed six people. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Recent airstrikes were conducted as retaliation. “Payback time! The scoundrels are being held to account for their treacherous attacks,” read a tweet by the Turkish defense ministry, accompanied by a picture of an F-16 fighter jet.


Turkey has conducted a number of military operations in Syria since the civil war began. These military operations target ISIS but have also been increasingly directed against the Kurdish militia groups.

“Ankara started to feel threatened by the emergence along Turkey’s southern border of an increasingly autonomous Kurdish entity that could, to an extent, count on Western support,” wrote Carnegie Europe analyst Francesco Siccardi.

Analysts like Siccardi argue that Turkish military operations in northern Syria are largely motivated by fears that the successful establishment of a de-facto autonomous Kurdish government in the region will encourage Kurdish nationalists in Turkey.

Turkish and US soldiers on patrol in Syria, 2019.
The Turkish armed forces have been involved in fighting against both ISIS and Kurdish militias in Syria. Credit: Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl / Public domain / via Wikimedia Commons

Possible ground offensive

Reports suggest that Turkish forces may now follow up airstrikes with a ground offensive against the YPG/SDF. However, opposition from the US, Russia, and Iran may be preventing Ankara from going ahead with the move.

The US and other NATO allies fundamentally disagree with Turkey’s position on the YPG/SDF. US-led coalition forces have worked closely with the Kurdish militias against ISIS and do not consider them to be a terrorist offshoot of the PKK.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran continue to pursue their own objectives in Syria by supporting the Assad government. Moscow has reportedly requested that Ankara refrain from launching a ground offensive.

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that the airstrikes were just “the beginning.”

“While we press ahead with air raids uninterrupted, we will crack down on terrorists also by land at the most convenient time for us,” he told the Turkish Parliament. It remains to be seen whether Turkey will launch a ground offensive in the near future.

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