The latest conflict afflicting northeast Syria

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.

Overnight, from the 14th to th 15th of October, Syrian soldiers have moved into Manbij, Hasakah and Qamishli and established checkpoints towards the M4 Highway (Source and map:

Overnight, from the 14th to th 15th of October, Syrian soldiers have moved into Manbij, Hasakah and Qamishli and established checkpoints towards the M4 Highway (Source and map: “US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria“, T-Intelligence, 14.10.2019).

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“.

Manbij, Syria, last year (Photo: Mauricio Lima).” width=”360″ height=”240″ /> American Special Forces worked closely with Kurdish troops to fight the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria, last year (Photo: Mauricio Lima).

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.

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.

One of the two detained French women who fled the Islamic State group's last pocket in Syria walks with her child at al-Hol camp on February 17, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic).

One of the two detained French women who fled the Islamic State group’s last pocket in Syria walks with her child at al-Hol camp on February 17, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic).

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.

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.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) fighting in Was al-Ain on Oct. 13 (Photo: Nazeer Al-Khaib).

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) fighting in Was al-Ain on Oct. 13 (Photo: Nazeer Al-Khaib).

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.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Iddon, Security Policy, Syria.

4 Responses to The latest conflict afflicting northeast Syria

  1. The Russians do to a certain extent understand the East better than the West does.Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, the new Saudi ambassador in London cited in “A Saudi Diplomat Called the U.S. Pullout a ‘Disaster’“, The New York Times, 14.10.2019.

    • • •

    Once again, Russia is the big winner of the developments in the Middle East – without lifting a finger. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a timely state visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday. According to the Washington Post, the subject of the visit was rather oil production agreements, than the current security situation. However, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said that Saudi Arabia “look[s] forward to working with Russia to achieve security and stability and fight terrorism.”

    Already on Monday, the new Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, had criticized the withdrawal of U.S. troops and called it a “disaster for the region” and that this decision “does not give one incredible confidence.” When asked whether the pullout had altered the kingdom’s assessment of Trump’s reliability as an ally, he said that Saudi Arabia is “concerned, no question.” He also believes that “Russia is becoming an important player in the region – whether one likes it or not, it is a fact”.

    Russia Today is additionally touching on a sore point with its reporting (see the video in the above article). Yesterday, the state-funded foreign television station published another video on Youtube entitled “Left in a hurry: RT films inside abandoned US military base at Manbij, Syria“, which suggests a hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops, which reminds of the shabby flight of Iraqi troops north of Iraq in June 2014.

  2. S.A. says:

    Another “me-too” North European report with a lot of cliches and some already known truth inserted for credibility.

    Let’s remind again. USA and Europe’s fungis (France, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain et al which I shall call ‘fungis’ instead of ‘fukgis’) have created ISIS against the Syrian regime and supported it to the last moment it turned against West and when ISIS’ attrocities made it to the press in Europe. All USA & fungis wanted was to get rid of Assad and “all means were justified” to that end.

    The result was genocial; millions of people killed and more millions of people displaced. We have seen how heartless fungis and rest of Europe was when it came to accomodating refugees for the wars that Europe has created. Refugees and their kids were kicked by TV women on the fiels, navies let them drown on the shores of Italy and Greece and beaten in Central Europe.

    Yet Turkey -which is not innocent either and is guilty of being `Pakistan of USA in Afghan war’ in this USA/ fungis orchestrated Syria misery- has at least been humane enough to harbour more than 4 million Syrian refugees.

    For a long time in this misery, PKK-YPG did not take any sides. They neither supported Syrian regime nor the ISIS and other religious terrorists. But they conveniently occupied that areas that Syrian army vacated to fight the Fungis-backed terrorists. When ISIS turned against the fungis, then US et. al. started supporting PKK-YPG to beat ISIS and also achieve the second-best option: even if they had to live with Assad, at least carve out some substantial land from Syria.

    You know that YPG is an arm of PKK. Nobody can be so ignorant not to see this. And you really think Turkey would let a PKK-state in its southern borders.

    One thing for sure. Seeing USA and fungis support terrorists in Syria, last few years have been pretty character building for Turkey. I am hoping that this will not result in Turkey turning to worser options. At least not until China liberates the World from this Euro-centric genocidal domination for resources. Sure China will do the same in time (one can only hope, with their older and deeper culture, not as bad as World had been undergoing under Europe’s domination) but at least there will be some gap time for this continuous misery.

    Turkey plans to settle around 3 million Syrian refugees in the safe zone to be set up as a result of the ‘Peace Fountain Operation’ of Turkish army.

    I think it is a very bad idea.

    The best would be to distribute these 4 million refugees between the guilty countries. The countries who created the human drama in Syria. The countries who caused the deaths of the millions of people. Let the ones who want to stay in Turkey, stay in Turkey. And the rest hand over to France, UK, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Spain (and any other who supported jihadists) so that they will take the responsibility for the miseries they continue creating for the rest of the World.

    I am not naive that Europe would accept any such humane thing. But Erdoğan can be right in suggesting to open the gates for refugees. Let them invade the lands of the people who burned their houses and killed their children!

  3. T-Intelligence published another excellent map on their Facebook page. It shows the development in Northern Syria after yesterday’s deal reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They agreed that Syrian and Russian forces would deploy in northeast Syria to remove Kurdish YPG fighters and their weapons from the border with Turkey. This safe zone reaches 30 to 32 km into Syrian territory (blue and violet dotted line along to the Turkish border). Alongside with the Russian forces, also the regular Syrian Armed Forces (SAA) will return to the border to Turkey. Besides, the Manbij and Tel Rifat “pockets” will fall under the full control of the SAA.

    The U.S. is out (and so their credibility), Russia is (still) in, and Turkey got the safe zone it wanted all this time. The Kurds fall by the wayside – they have to withdraw from this zone. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 300.000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive, 120 civilians and 259 fighters with the Kurdish-led forces have been killed until last Sunday evening (Tuvan Gumrukcu and Darya Korsunskaya, “Russia, Turkey Reach Deal to Remove Kurdish YPG from Syria Border“, Reuters, 23.10.2019.)

    In taking responsibility with the Kurds for defeating ISIS in Syria, we relieved Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and al-Assad of a huge burden, enabling them to crush the regime’s domestic rivals. And what’s really crazy is that — we did it for free! We didn’t even demand autonomy for our Syrian Kurdish allies or power-sharing with moderate Sunni Syrian rebels. I feel terrible for the Kurds, but at least America might get the last laugh on Putin. Trump let Putin win Syria […] — Thomas L. Friedman, “Trump’s Syria Trifecta: A Win for Putin, a Loss for the Kurds and Lots of Uncertainty for Our Allies“, The New York Times, 22.10.2019.

    Finally, today, U.S. President Donald Trump said that he would lift sanctions he imposed on Turkey, including steel tariffs, after the country invaded northeastern Syria on October 9.

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