What Makes Tell Abyad the First Target for Turkey East of the Euphrates?

Troops of the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units” in Tell Abyad, rural Raqqa (Reuters)

Troops of the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units” in Tell Abyad, rural Raqqa (Reuters)


The city of Tell Abyad, Raqqa governorate, has been making the headlines of the Turkish newspapers and media outlets, which provided a wide coverage of the area and presented “exclusive” videos, the last of which was released by the “TRT HABER,” recorded by a drone, showing the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) as engaged in fortifications, digging  tunnels and erecting mounds, in preparation for any military actions in the upcoming days.

The Turkish media coverage is a “strategy” adopted by Ankara since the break out of its military operations in Syria, beginning with the “Euphrates Shield,” as it heads the military actions against areas to be controlled, posing a helpful factor that serves to confuse the opposite front and test the political situation.

This focus on Tell Abyad was not surprising as it has been preceded by tension along the borders, which corresponded to the city of Ayn al-Arab’s bombardment by the Turkish army’s, following the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s threats of the preparations to control all the border areas, similar to the two operations of the “Euphrates Shield” and the “Olive Branch.”

The areas east of the Euphrates are considered the key target for Turkey after it controlled Afrin, a doubtless thing if the official statements are taken into consideration.

However, the question to answer is the area from which the military operations would kick off. So far, this potential area is Tell Abyad not Manbij, which the Turkish president dismissed as a choice lately, saying that his country “does not want to lose time with it, and it has to move to the east of the Euphrates.”


A Strategic Location

The city of Tell Abyad is located at the Syrian-Turkish borders, and administratively it follows the Raqqa governorate, about 100 kilometers away from it.

The city’s name is derived from an archaeological site, and Kurdish people call it “Girê sipî.” Since June 2015, it has been controlled by the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” the military arm of the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” which entered it after the removal of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) that invaded it in 2013.

The city is a complementary part of the counter Turkish city of “Akçakale,” as they constitute two parts of the same city, brought together by a joint geography, in addition to an integrated population, consisting of a single tribe, based in the two parts.

The famous crossing of Tell Abyad is located in the city, which is strategically situated on one of the Balikh river’s springs, Ain al-Arous.

Several towns and villages are affiliated with it, including Suluk and Ayn Issa. According to 2011 census, Tell Abyad center’s population reached 75 thousand and 587 persons; the majority of which consists of Arabs, in addition to a small number of Armenians, Turkmens and Kurds.

Following the “Units” control over the city in 2015, the “Self-management” in Northern Syria announced Tell Abyad as its new province.

In a statement to “Reuters” agency, back then, the Management’s media official Dalil Othman said that the new “canton” has been officially announced to be the fourth after Afrin, Ayn al-Arab and al-Hasakah.

In a former report, “SDF” said that it opened centers in the city to meet the citizens’ needs, such as the “People’s House, Cultural Center, People’s Municipality, Internal Security Forces, Self-Management, Educational Complex and medical centers.”

A map showing the control positions in the surrounding of the Tell Abyad city, rural Raqqa – November 11, 20188 (LiveMap)

A map showing the control positions in the surrounding of the Tell Abyad city, rural Raqqa – November 11, 20188 (LiveMap)


Reasons for Its being a Primary Target

To the day, no decisions were made concerning the start of a military operation towards Tell Abyad. However, the indicators and the steps undertaken by the Turkey-backed “Free Army” factions in northern Aleppo represent a strong sign to the military action forcing its way in its direction.

Military sources of the “Free Army” told Enab Baladi that Turkey is seeking to involve the eastern area’s fighters, now functioning under the “National Army,” in the battle of Tell Abyad, as to achieve two goals. The first is that they are originally from the area which they will enter, and the second is that they are well informed of the eastern area and its geography.

Of the factions nominated to lead the military operation is the “Ahrar al-Sharqiya” and the “Division 20,” the formation of which was announced two months ago in affiliation with “al-Sham Legion.”

Many reasons turn Tall Abyad into an area suitable for the launch of the upcoming battle at the borders east of the Euphrates; thus, excluding the other areas, on top of which is Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî).

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Mustafa Saijari, a leader of the “Free Army,” said that the city stands out for its tribal nature, which connects it with the Turkish city of Tell Abyad, Akçakale.

He told Enab Baladi that the population’s constituents, Arabs and Turkmen, give Turkey a key reason to advance a military operation towards it.

On the ground, the city has a major importance, for controlling it would affect how the areas east of the Euphrates would be divided through separating the city of Ayn al-Arab from Qamishli and other areas and, accordingly, weakening the Kurdish forces.

According to Saijari, if the battle is to start at Tell Abyad, the operation would be the first of its kind towards the east of the Euphrates, the sensitivity of which arises from the American presence there.

The battle of Tell Abyad has a fundamental and massive political dimension as it will fathom the American reaction concerning the areas east of the Euphrates, he said.

A “Geo-strategic” Value

Early in November 2018, Turkey started to deploy reinforcements to the area adjacent to Tell Abyad, at the Turkish side, and there were talks that it transported troops of the “Free Army” to the area, without an official confirmation of both sides.

In a former study on “Turk Press” website, May 2017, the analyst Mohammad Aziz Abdul Hassan, said: “The Turkish military leadership is aware of the importance of Tell Abyad as a military value, effected by its geo-strategic location on the one hand and as a crossing connecting Kobanî with Qamishli on the other.”

He added that the Tell Abyad offensive will “allow the Turkish forces to advance to a large extent through the empty areas, avoid the natural barriers of the Euphrates, keep away from the Balikh valley, dense with population, and utilize the high-quality roads network, which provide various tracks to progress towards the city.”

Abdul Hassan said that any attack against the city will be a rapid military battle to divide the Kurdish forces’ control areas and to entirely eliminate the dream of the Democratic Union Party of expanding the Kurdish-Syrian Self-management along the northern borders.

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