SDF commanders in Ankara’s crosshairs: systematic sapping, dispersal

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) taking part in the funeral of an SDF fighter in Deir Ezzor, northeastern Syria - 10 April 2019 (AFP)

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) taking part in the funeral of an SDF fighter in Deir Ezzor, northeastern Syria - 10 April 2019 (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Turkey’s operations to “neutralize” leaders of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and some Kurdish parties that Ankara designates as “terrorist” in northeastern Syria have topped the field scene at a higher pace than before, coinciding with Turkish threats of a ground attack against these parties and organizations.

There was targeting and “neutralization” of leaders of various ranks, who held many positions in these parties, while some of them supervised military operations for years. Some of them were pronounced dead, while SDF denied the death of others; some of the targeting operations were kept discreet, and the perpetrators and reasons remained unknown.

Turkey utilized various methods to “neutralize” them, such as bombing and drones, including what the Turkish forces described as “qualitative and special” operations, without specifying the mechanism and method of targeting.

Questions were raised about the effectiveness and impact of these operations on the SDF, with Turkey intending to carry out a ground military operation in northern Syria to “protect its southern borders.”

Turkey classifies the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on “terrorism” lists, and the party is also classified on “terrorism” lists in the United States, the European Union, and a number of European countries. Turkey views SDF as an extension of the PKK, which the SDF denies, despite its acknowledgment of the existence of party fighters under its banner that are holding leadership positions.

Weakening and dismembering

The most recent “neutralization” operation targeted the leader and official in the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Siham Musleh, nicknamed Mizghin Kobani, in a security operation on 5 December in the Ain Issa region, north of Raqqa, according to what “security sources” had told the Anadolu Agency, pointing out that Musleh was behind many “terrorist operations.”

On 2 December, Muhammad Nasir, codenamed Kemal Pir, commander of a PKK brigade in the Tell Tamr subdistrict of al-Hasakah, was “neutralized” by the Turkish Intelligence Service (MİT). According to the Anadolu Agency, he was an expert in missiles and had an active role in concocting “sabotage” plans.

The Turkish authorities announced the “neutralization” of the PKK and YPG official, Qays Berho Sulayva, codenamed Azad, in Ain Issa, northern Syria, on 6 November. According to Turkish newspapers and agencies, Sulayva holds Iraqi citizenship.

On 1 November, Turkish forces “neutralized” Ersin Şahin, codenamed Serdem Pir-Serhat Harun, in charge of the PKK’s so-called Derik Brigade in an operation it described as “special” on the borderline with Syria.

Quoting “security sources,” Turkish agencies stated that Şahin started his activities in the PKK in 2014 and then moved to the Iraqi countryside. He joined the YPG in Syria until the date of his “neutralization.”

Syrian military analyst, Major Tareq Haj Bakri, explained that targeting commanders means weakening the groups they are leading and enfeebling elements’ morale. It poses a direct threat to the forces and groups headed by these commanders, thus injuring their military structure.

Haj Bakri told Enab Baladi that, in a military situation, when the commander is targeted, this means the group that follows him has become dispersed and which leads it to lose discipline and the mechanism of communication between the commander and the members. Even if an alternative or new leader is appointed or present, he needs a period of time in order to familiarize himself with his elements and be able to lead his group correctly, and vice versa.

In the military analyst’s view, the frequent targeting of these commanders indicates that they have become accessible to Turkish forces and that the latter are able to target them whenever they wish, follow their movements, and learn their whereabouts.

Haj Bakri added that this repeated targeting leaves the impression that all leaders, whether they are political or military leaders, are targeted and are not safe and are constantly under the microscope. The leadership is forced to hide and act far from the elements in order not to reveal its location, thus weakening its leadership and its field performance.

Denial and “potential neutralization”

The targeting operations announced by Turkey are met with obituary segments attached to the biography of the targeted leader on SDF-affiliated websites and agencies, which have military influence in northeastern Syria, along with the funeral ceremony. SDF also denies targeting some of the leaders, while certain other operations pass without comment or confirmation.

Turkish authorities’ announcement regarding the “neutralization” of the PKK leader Ayoub Yaqut, codenamed Amed Dorşin, in an operation in the al-Shaddadi region of ​​al-Hasakah, northern Syria, on 24 October, was met with SDF’s denial.

SDF spokesman Farhad Shami denied on Twitter that Diyarbakır-born Yaqut had recently been killed in the al-Shaddadi region but was killed on 11 November 2021. At that time, YPG declared him dead, and a funeral ceremony was held at his family’s home in Sulaymaniyah, north-west of Iraq after he was killed while participating with YPG in the areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), SDF’s political umbrella.

On 2 August, the Internal Security Forces (Asayish), SDF’s security arm, denied the assassination of Commander Nusrat Tebesh by Turkey, which announced on 30 July that it had “neutralized” the PKK’s Tebesh and stated that he was responsible for an Istanbul bombing that killed 18 people back in 2008.

Four people were killed and others injured on 6 August after an unidentified explosion targeted a military vehicle as it passed through the al-Sinaa neighborhood in Qamishli, north of al-Hasakah, followed by an SDF statement indicating that the bombing was the result of a targeting operation carried out by a Turkish drone. The bombing killed PKK leader Mazloum Saad Eddin Asaad, codenamed Rokhaz Amuda, who had been assigned to supervise SDF’s Military Police apparatus.

The Jusoor for Studies center stated that the results of the report of the Russian advisors at Qamishli International Airport, which the Russian forces use as a military base, regarding the bombing incident in Qamishli questioned the SDF’s credibility about similar and recently increased explosions.

The report’s findings concluded that the explosion occurred from inside the vehicle using a remotely detonated explosive device and that the airport’s air control data did not monitor Turkish drone movement at the time of the incident.

The center explained that the findings of the report bore several indications, the most prominent of which was the possibility of internal assassinations between the SDF and the PKK or an internal dispute between foreign and local cadres that are working to reduce the role and control of the PKK and its institutions.

The frequency of these attacks has been rising at a time when SDF-held areas have seen escalations since 20 November, after the Turkish Air Force launched Operation Claw-Sword against SDF-controlled areas in Syria and PKK-held areas in Iraq in response to the bombing on Istanbul’s busy İstiklal Street on the 13th of the same month.

This operation was considered the largest and most intense since Turkey’s reliance on air operations in Syria, compared to Operation Winter Eagle last February and the air strikes that preceded it, which started in August 2021.

The operation was halted the same day, but Turkish threats are present. Today’s operations are limited to occasional artillery and aerial bombardment by units of the Turkish Army or the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). On the other hand, the SDF targets SNA-held areas north of Aleppo.


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