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Syria’s warring sides in a scramble for north-eastern Syria

Elements of Turkey-backed National Army ride on a military truck near the town of Tel Abyad - 11 October 2019 (Reuters)

Elements of Turkish-backed National Army ride on a military truck near the town of Tel Abyad - 11 October 2019 (Reuters)

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It has been nearly a month after the Sochi agreement between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The agreement aimed at ending the fighting between Turkish armed forces and the Syrian National Army (SNA) on the one hand and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other hand in the eastern region of the Euphrates.

On 22 October, all fighting in north-eastern Syria ceased for a few days, but returned days later in the form of hit-and-run battles in two significant areas: Tel Tamer in rural al-Hasakah and Ayn Issa in rural Raqqa.

The geographic location of Tel Tamer is considered a key node in the transportation networks in the region while Ayn Issa is an important target for the warring sides because of its proximity to the international highway M4.

Fighting continues in north-east Syria

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters-known as the SNA-and the SDF and Syrian regime forces have been fighting in Tel Tamer and Ayn Issa for a month in an attempt to expand their areas of control.

However, the battles in Tel Tamer, a transport hub of major importance, have become more intense in recent days.

Tel Tamer, north-west of al-Hasakah city, is a town located in the extreme north-east of Syria; 40 kilometers away from the city of al-Hasakah, 35 kilometers from the city of Ras al-Ayn and 64 Kilometers from the Turkish- Syrian border. The region includes 133 villages. Tel Tamer is inhabited by a majority of Assyrian Christians.

Tel Tamer also has an important network of roads, the most strategic of which is the M4 highway. The M4 connects Aleppo province with the Iraqi border at the Rabia border crossing. It also runs through the provinces of Raqqa and al-Hasakah. Moreover, Tel Tamer has local roads linking it to important border areas such as Nusaybin, Amuda and al-Darbasiyah.

The SNA spokesperson, Major Yousef Hamoud, in an earlier interview with Enab Baladi, said that they are fighting north of Tel Tamer in the southern countryside of Ras al-Ayn, and in the villages near the M4 highway.

Hamoud pointed out that they will continue carrying out military operations in all villages situated in the north of Tel Tamer to remove the SDF and the Syrian regime permanently.

Hamoud confirmed that joint forces from the Syrian regime and the SDF  are located in the center of the city of Tel Tamer.

Over the past days, military reinforcements have arrived for Syrian regime forces deployed in the countryside of Tel Tamer.

The state-run news agency (SANA) said on 9 November that the military reinforcements reached Bab al-Khair area in Abu Rasin district, al-Faisaliah, al-Manakh and Mahmudiya on Tel Tamer axis in Ras al-Ayn.On the other hand, in Ayn Issa in the northern countryside of Raqqa, battles continue between the SNA and Syrian regime forces and the SDF but less vigorously than in Tel Tamer.

The SNA, a few days ago, took control of the village of Khafiyeh, in the vicinity of Ayn Issa, after hours-long battles.

On 7 November, the SNA announced, through its official channels, its control over the villages of Sharekraq and Bir Issa on the axis of the town of Ayn Issa, after expelling the SDF forces from these villages.

SDF is located in the area of Ayn Issa, a center for the gathering of its fighters. Ayn Issa is 55 kilometers away from Raqqa city and the M4 highway runs through it.

After an agreement signed between the Syrian regime forces and the SDF on 13 October, the SDF allowed the regime forces to be stationed in several areas on the outskirts of Ayn Issa as well as entering and expanding into the areas of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), under the pretext of repelling the Turkish advance into the east of the Euphrates.

In parallel with the fighting in Tel Tamer and Ayn Issa, US troops started redeploying this month near the oil fields in the provinces of al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor, to prevent them from falling into the hands of Syrian regime and the so-called Islamic State, according to US President Donald Trump.

US troops are now stationed in certain areas, east of the Euphrates, despite Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria.

The U.S Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, said earlier that “the US will maintain a reduced presence in Syria to deny ISIS access to oil revenue,” according to Reuters.

Russia harshly criticized the Washington’s decision to maintain troops in eastern parts of the Euphrates in order to protect oil fields. The spokesperson of Russia’s Defense Ministry, General Igor Konashenkov, accused Washington of smuggling oil from Syria to other countries.

As the US withdrew partially from its military bases, east of the Euphrates, Moscow exploited the vacuum left in those areas by deploying its forces in a move to expand its control at the expense of the US and Turkish presence in the region.

Russian media outlets published a video on 15 November, showing an aerial landing of Russian forces at Sarin airbase in the Mitras area in Ayn al-Arab, located in the countryside of Aleppo, days after US forces withdrew.

The news agency Novosti quoted a Russian official in the military police as saying that a Russian military unit took command of the US military base at Sarin airbase in a move to protect and deploy at the airbase, in place of US forces.

Russian-Turkish joint patrols

In light of the American redeployment and Moscow’s rush to fill the vacuum left by Washington, Turkish and Russian troops are conducting joint ground patrols in northeast Syria near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Turkish and Russian troops have conducted eight joint patrols on the Syrian-Turkish border so far. In fact, conducting joint patrols is one of the terms of the agreement that Putin and Erdogan signed in Sochi on 22 October.

Through these patrols, Turkey has tried to exert further influence in the east of the Euphrates region, especially in the areas it did not control during Operation Peace Spring, namely in the cities of Ras al-Ayn in Hasakah countryside and Tel Abyad in Raqqa countryside.

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