by Paul Iddon
In the space of a mere week, northeast Syria has once again descended into conflict with various powers scrambling to achieve different objectives. This was precipitated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to green-light a Turkish attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that presently control northeast and east of Syria.
Since Trump green-lighted the Turkish invasion by withdrawing a small number of U.S. troops from the Syrian border – where they were monitoring a “safe zone” established between Turkey and the SDF by the U.S. in recent weeks to prevent any war – following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Oct. 6, Turkey began attacking northeast Syria, on Oct. 9.
As part of its Operation Peace Spring, Turkey bombed several cities and towns near the border and used its Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA), also known as the Syrian National Army, militia proxies to launch a ground incursion against the SDF into the Arab-majority Tal Abyad area, which sits between northeast Syria’s two Syrian Kurdish regions, Kobane and Jazira. At least 160,000 civilians have been displaced to date, according to the United Nations. The TFSA has killed unarmed civilians, executed Kurdish SDF fighters, and even ambushed and murdered Hevrin Khalaf, a female politician. These are actions which “almost certainly constitute a war crime, under international law“.The SDF, despite being hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered, has so far seemingly put up a formidable fight on the ground. On Oct. 15, for example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the group launched a counterattack against Turkey and the TFSA in Sari Kani (Ras al-Ain). It went on to note that the SDF is successfully using “fortifications, tunnel networks and a continuous supply of reinforcements” to combat Turkey’s incursion.
U.S. troops who had long trained the SDF and fought alongside them against the Islamic State (ISIS) have told U.S. media how “ashamed” they are of the withdrawal decision and their inability to help their allies, calling the decision a “betrayal” of the U.S. ally. Kurds also feel embittered by Trump’s decision, especially since the “safe zone” arrangement they had agreed to compelled them to destroy their defensive fortifications near the Turkish border and withdraw their heavy weapons. The SDF did both of these things in good faith under the belief that it would enable the U.S. to dissuade Turkey from launching any attack.
U.S. troops came under artillery fire from Turkish forces on Oct. 11. According to Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, “[t]he explosion occurred within a few hundred meters of a location in an area known by the Turks to have US forces present”. This raises questions about whether Turkey is trying to push the remaining U.S. troops farther from the border.
Turkish forces have fired on a declared U.S. military outpost in northern Syria. Turkey knows all of our locations down to the precise grid coordinate as confirmed by SECDEF and CJCS only two hours ago. This was not a mistake.
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) October 11, 2019
Then, on Oct. 15, U.S. F-15 jet fighters and Apache helicopter gunships were sent over northeast Syria to warn off TFSA fighters that came close to U.S. forces on the ground. One U.S. official said that the TFSA had “violated a standing agreement with the U.S. not to get close enough to threaten U.S. troops”. One Apache gunship even hovered mere feet off the ground to deter the TFSA fighters.
The destructive Turkish assault has, predictably, given ISIS an opportunity to exploit the chaos so it can regroup and reorganize. The group’s territorial caliphate was destroyed last March following the SDF’s capture of its very last redoubt, the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani.
The SDF captured tens-of-thousands of ISIS suspects and have detained them in camps and prisons across northeast Syria. Countries from where ISIS foreign fighters originated, for the most part, refused to repatriate them and put them on trial, so the SDF kept them detained.In Al-Hol camp, there are about 70,000 people, thousands of them ISIS militants. In August, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham went so far as to say that the camp “is quickly becoming a mini-caliphate and a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS”. Upon the onset of the Turkish invasion, the SDF made clear that guarding Al-Hol and ISIS detention facilities is no longer a priority. ISIS has already proven capable of attacking SDF forces, and there have been simultaneous riots in Al-Hol.
Also, on Oct. 13, a Turkish bombing of Ain Issa gave hundreds of ISIS suspects the opportunity to escape from the detention camp. It is presently unclear where they have gone. U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that the TFSA “are deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons.”
Neighboring Iraq is sending troop reinforcements to its border out of fears that as many as 13,000 ISIS fighters could exploit Operation Peace Spring in order to use Syria as a launchpad once again to infiltrate other countries. It is also unclear if the TFSA plans to recruit these former ISIS prisoners into its ranks or let them simple escape and wage an insurgency of their own against the SDF further south (see also here: Patrick Cockburn, “Turkey Accused of Recruiting Ex-Isis Fighters to Attack Kurds in Syria“, The Independent, 07.02.2018).
The SDF has turned to Damascus for help halting the Turkish invasion. It denies that it is either handing over territory currently under its control or sacrificing its autonomy. It insists it is merely allowing in Syrian forces to defend the country’s border with Turkey. Syrian regime forces are reportedly going to be deployed in areas spanning from the Arab-majority Manbij region west of the Euphrates all across the vast northeastern Syrian border from the east bank of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. They will not, however, be deployed to the Tal Abyad and Sari Kani areas where clashes are ongoing between the SDF and Turkish forces.
On Oct. 14, SDF commander-in-chief General Mazloum Abdi briefed Trump in a phone call about the situation on the ground in northeast Syria and expressed his concerns about Kobane being attacked. Shortly after, Trump talked with Erdogan and “received a firm commitment” that Turkey would not attack that city, according to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. However, on Oct. 15, an unconfirmed report stated that TFSA forces were attacking Kobane.
Just in: SDC’s U.S. representative tells me Turkish backed forces are attacking Kobani and kidnapping civilians – despite Erdogan’s commitment to Trump yesterday that he would NOT attack the town
— Lara Seligman (@laraseligman) October 15, 2019
Additionally, on Oct. 15, Russia released a statement in which it said that its military police are deployed in Manbij and are patrolling “along the lines of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey” and that the Russian military is also “interacting” with Turkey. This indicates that Moscow is taking up the role of deconflicting Manbij mere hours after the U.S. troops – which previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey as part of the so-called Manbij Roadmap – vacated the area.
A short video (see below) from Russia Today aptly signified the rapid changes that are presently transpiring in northeast Syria. It showed U.S. military vehicles leaving in one direction and Syrian regime forces passing by them on the road going in the other way on Oct. 14 — a clear indicator of the transfer of power that is currently taking place in this region.
It is unclear if the deployment of Syrian regime forces will be enough to prevent Turkey from capturing significant swathes of northeast Syria from the SDF. After all, when Turkey invaded the northwest Kurdish enclave of Afrin in early 2018, the Kurds also called on Damascus to defend the border and halt the invasion. While pro-regime militiamen were deployed to Afrin, they proved utterly incapable of preventing Turkey and the TFSA from conquering and occupying that region.
That said, on that occasion. Russia withdrew military police it had deployed in Afrin and kept the airspace open for the Turkish Air Force, effectively giving Ankara a green-light to invade. After Ankara captured Afrin city, on Mar. 18, Russia briefly closed the airspace, allowing several Kurdish fighters to escape to the neighboring Tal Rifaat area, where they have remained ever since. Russia can similarly limit how far this Turkish operation goes if it chooses to close the airspace over northeast Syria and warn Ankara from advancing any further.
In addition to its deployment to Manbij, Russia has stressed that it will not accept any confrontation between Turkish and Syrian forces. “This would simply be unacceptable… and therefore we will not allow it, of course,” said Russia’s presidential envoy to Syria Aleksandr Lavrentyev on Oct. 15. He also declared that the Turkish military can go no further than 5-10 kilometers into Syrian territory and that Moscow does not approve of Operation Peace Spring. Consequently, if Turkey goes further than that Russia will likely take steps to pressure Turkey to withdraw.
Whatever the case ultimately proves to be in the next couple of days and weeks, it is already clear that the situation in northeast Syria is rapidly changing, and the region may well remain a conflict zone for the foreseeable future.