The United States has opened a new front in northern Syria, bombing Islamic State targets in two locations near the Turkish border – away from Kobani, the Kurdish enclave that has been the main focus of U.S. airstrikes the past nine months.
The U.S. Central command confirmed 11 airstrikes in the past month against Islamic State forces near the towns of Azzaz and Marea, an area where the Islamic State launched an offensive early this month aimed at closing the supply route for arms and goods to moderate rebels fighting Syrian governments forces in Aleppo.
And there were five airstrikes against Islamic State forces in the town of Jarablus this past weekend, the Central Command said.
The attacks in the Aleppo and Jarablus areas did not rely on Kurdish spotters or ground troops, said a spokesman for the main Syrian Kurdish militia. That’s a change as well; the United States has worked closely with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the months since blunting the Islamic State effort to seize Kobani became the primary mission of U.S. air efforts in Syria.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren acknowledged the close working relationship between the U.S. and the YPG.
“Our coordination goes through the Joint Operating Center in Irbil,” Warren said, referring to the U.S. military outpost in northern Iraq. “The (Kurdish) forces in Syria who are in the fight, if they need some coalition air power to support them, they will just get on the phone and call the Irbil JOC and say, ‘Hey, we’re in a fight here, we need some help,’ and we send the help.”
YPG spokesman Redur Xalil gave a similar explanation for the way the U.S. works with the Kurdish forces. “We coordinate with the coalition when we are in direct confrontation with the Islamic State,” he said.
That coordination doesn’t apply to the strikes north of Aleppo, however. “In north Aleppo, we have no direct confrontation” with the Islamic State, he explained.
Although the number of airstrikes near Azzaz and Marea is modest compared to what the U.S. undertook in defense of Kobani – well over 1,000 since October – the top moderate rebel commander in Aleppo said they were appreciated. “These strikes were successful,” Brigadier General Zahir Al Sakit told McClatchy. He said the U.S. had hit Islamic State units in Soran, al Bel and Dabiq and also had struck an Islamic State convoy.
Another rebel, Yusuf Abu Abdullah, a spokesman for the al Safwa Islamic Brigades, which despite its name is considered a moderate group, said the recent strikes were “more effective” than previous ones, though “still less than needed.” He noted that the anti-government rebels in Aleppo do not enjoy the same close relationship as the YPG has with U.S. forces. “We have no direct coordination with the Americans, though we tried,” he said.
The attacks, which began on June 7 with a single strike and hit a peak with five on Sunday, followed pleas by leaders of the moderate opposition to save the supply routes that sustain moderate rebel forces in Aleppo.
The U.S. attacks also underscore Turkish concerns about U.S. actions in northern Turkey. On the one hand, they worry that an Islamic State capture of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, would trigger an new exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians into Turkey.
On the other, they worry that the U.S. affinity for helping the YPG will bolster the Kurdish group, which the Turks see as an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party, better known as the PKK, which has fought an on-and-off insurrection against the Turkish government for three decades.
The U.S. bombardment near Jarablus, Turkish officials worry, would allow the YPG to open a corridor linking three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, leading to the creation of a self-governing Kurdish region, more refugees, and an example for Kurds inside Turkey who support the PKK’s call for autonomy.
Turkey has vowed not to allow that to happen.
“I say to the international community that whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern front in the north of Syria,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday.
Tensions became so great last week that Turkish news outlets reported that the Turkish military had been tasked to enter Syria to seize Jarablus in part to prevent a YPG takeover. But after a four-hour meeting of the country’s National Security Council meeting, no incursion was announced. Instead, the Turkish government said it would tighten security along the Turkish-Syrian border.
An incursion faced many hurdles. The Turkish public is wary of a military move into Syria, the Turkish military argued such a move could not be undertaken without U.S. support, and Turkey’s political environment is unsettled after Erdogan’s Justice and Development party lost its majority in recent parliamentary elections.
The main candidate to form a coalition with the Justice and Development Party, the Republican People’s party, is adamantly opposed to a unilateral Turkish move into Syria.
“I am warning you. Don’t you dare,” Republican People’s party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said Monday.
Another warning came from the head of the PKK, whose YPG affiliate is now working closely with the U.S. military. “If they intervene in Rojava, then we will intervene and turn the entirety of Turkey into a war zone,” Murat Karayilan was quoted as saying by the Kurdish Firat News Agency. Rojava, or western Kurdistan, is the PKK’s name for the three Kurdish enclaves in Syria.
Turkey has accused the YPG of driving non-Kurds from the towns and villages it’s conquered with the help of U.S. air strikes since the fall of Kobani. A senior Turkish government official said the YPG had emptied 50 villages in May and June. The official called it a “demographic redesign,” but Arabs and Turkmans fleeing to Turkey call it an “ethnic cleansing.”
The shift in the bombing pattern is difficult to detect. While Central Command announces its bombing missions daily, it often provides locations that only generally locate where a raid took place. However, Maj. Curtiss Kellogg, a Centcom spokesman, confirmed by email that five mentions of “near Aleppo” in fact referred to Azaz and Marea.
There has been no reference to raids on Jarablus in June bombing statements. Asked if any of the airstrikes listed as “near Kobani” could mean Jarablus, Kellogg acknowledged that five conducted over the weekend “near Kobani” could be considered “near Jarablus.” Jarablus is 25 miles west of Kobani.
Meanwhile, Islamic State fighters staged a surprise attack Tuesday on Tal Abyad, which the YPG captured in mid-June after Islamic State troops withdrew. The Islamic State seized the eastern part of the city and appeared to be pressing to recover the entire border town.
It was second surprise Islamic State attack on the YPG in five days, following an assault on Kobani Thursday in which Islamic State fighters killed more than 100 civilians in an assault that lasted three days.
James Rosen in Washington and special correspondents Duygu Guvenc in Ankara and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.
Follow Roy Gutman on Twitter: @roygutmanmcc