Sat 14 Dec 2019

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The emerging competition for the M4 international highway

SNA forces on the outskirts of Tel Tamer in western al-Hasakah, 12 November 2019. (Operation Peace Spring, Twitter)

SNA forces on the outskirts of Tel Tamer in western al-Hasakah, 12 November 2019. (Operation Peace Spring, Twitter)

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A fierce military competition is ongoing to gain control over the M4 international highway. The highway is of vital importance both from a strategic military perspective as well as an economic one. Whichever party controls it is certain to gain dividends in future political negotiations in Syria.

The Euphrates regions are the site of heavy clashes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by the Syrian Army. The latest clashes began on 9 November, with Ankara aiming to push the SDF further away from their border.

A diverse set of local military powers (SDF supported by the US, Syrian regime forces supported by Russia and the SNA supported by Turkey) are competing in order to gain control over Tel Tamer in western al-Hasakah, and Ain Issa in northern Raqqa. The two districts are strategically important as the M4 international highway, that connects Iraq and Turkey, passes through them.

Strategic highway

Ahmad Hamadi, a military analyst, sees that whichever party can exert control over the M4 highway will be in control of military and trade movements, as well as hostile forces’ military supplies, especially with the expansions on confrontations reaching al-Malikiyah and Rumelan near Turkish borders.

Hamadi pointed out, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the importance of Tel Tamer is that it is a crossroad of the M4 international highway between the al-Qamishli and al-Hasakah section and theAleppo, Ain Issa and Manbaj section.

The M4 extends from the Iraqi-Syria borders to the Mediterranean Sea in Latakia. The road passes through al-Qamishli near the Turkish borders, al-Raqqa in the Euphrates region, as well as Aleppo and Idlib before terminating in Latakia.

The highway intersects with the international M5 highway in the town of Saraqib in eastern Idlib. The M5 highway extends from Aleppo to Damascus, passing through Hama, and onwards to Jordan and Lebanon.

The NATO-backed SDF gained control of the Euphrates region back in 2015, after expelling the so-called Islamic State. Their control was upended by the Turkish military operations last month.

An asset in the negotiations

The SNA spokesperson, Major Yousef Hamoud, said to Enab Baladi, that the M4 is an arterial road that connects crucial cities such as Aleppo and al-Hasakah, and states such as Turkey and Iraq and that’s where its importance lies.

Hamoud pointed out that controlling such an important international and national road will be an asset in the international negotiations regarding the region.

The SNA controls several parts of the international highway, in al-Arish and al-Awali in the vicinity of Tel Tamer in al-Hasakah. They are also in control of the section in Sharaqraq in rural al-Raqqa, where there has been steady advancement on the ground, according to Hamoud.

Controlling Tel Tamer and Ain Issa along with their crossroads, blocks the military and logistical supplies of SDF in its confrontations with SNA and Turkey.

A domestic and international conflict

The Turkish operation in eastern Syria gave the opportunity to Syrian regime troops to enter the region for the first time ever since 2012. The Syrian regime reached an agreement with SDF to encounter the Turkish operation and to attempt to retain the region’s strategic locations including the M4 highway.

Their resolve in retaining control of the M4 was evident in the heavy clashes that took place in Tel Tamer and Ain Issa, between SDF and SNA.

SNA declared that it gained control over two locations in vicinity of Ain Issa, on Saturday 23 November 2019, in an offensive supported by the Turkish army to expand its area of control in the region.

The official news agency of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, Hawar (ANHA), published a video showing heavy clashes in the villages of Saida, Mu’laq and al-Wasta west of Ain Issa.

These heavy clashes are taking place despite 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 SNA on the one hand and SDF on the other hand in the eastern region of the Euphrates.

The Turkish Defense Ministry has accused the SDF of continuing daily violations in the region and of breaching the Turkish-Russian agreement.

Through its daily statements on its official website, the SDF has accused Turkey of continuous attacks on its locations in eastern Syria. The latest claim was on 22 November 2019, which accused the Turkish army along with its allies of attacking different locations in Zarkan and Tel Tamer using Grad missiles, drones and different kinds of heavy weapons.

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