Turkey escalates against Kurdish forces in northern Syria
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
The military escalation has resumed in northern Syria, several days after the end of the Turkish presidential elections.
The escalation parties are Turkey and its local ally, the Syrian National Army (SNA) on the one hand, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other hand, and Russia and the Syrian regime in other areas on the third side.
The escalation was evident in the aerial bombardment campaign launched by Turkey in separate areas of northern Syria, which it said was in response to the targeting of its bases in the region a few days ago, and the bombing by drones left soldiers dead and wounded.
The escalation coincided with a number of events, most notably the suspension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of the ceasefire agreement with Turkey and the return of its military operations against the Turkish army, in addition to the United States’ reinforcement of its military presence in Syria, in response to the Russian violations.
Observers believe that Turkey’s intervention in Kosovo, in support of the NATO forces, caused a state of dissatisfaction on the part of Russia towards Turkey, which prompted it to send messages in Syria.
On February 6, an earthquake struck the cities of southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, leaving great damage in the region and more than 55,000 dead. The massive quake was followed by the Turkish presidential elections, which ended last May with the victory of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a new presidential term.
This had a decisive impact on the course of field events in northern Syria, according to the political researcher Samer al-Ahmad who covers the eastern Euphrates region.
Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that the latest Turkish escalation in Syria showed that the military movements “returned with force” after the end of the Turkish preoccupation with internal files.
He added that Turkey stopped a ground military operation in Syria at the end of 2022 in exchange for the unleashing of its air force in northern Syria to target PKK leaders, which are on its “terrorist” lists.
In view of the negotiations taking place today between Turkey, the Syrian regime, and Russia, it can be considered that Turkey is trying to focus more pressure on the region to achieve greater air freedom for its fighters in Syrian airspace.
Wael Alwan, a researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, believes that the latest escalation in northern Syria is linked to “the response to the SDF attacks on Turkish bases” in northern Syria.
Alwan told Enab Baladi that Turkey’s response came out of awareness that Russia incited the SDF to target the Turkish bases in northern Syria and the Bab al-Salama border crossing between Turkey and northern Aleppo.
He added that the Turkish intervention to calm the rising situation in Kosovo with Serbia is what Russia does not really want, which could prompt Moscow to escalate against Turkey in a file that is more sensitive to Ankara, such as the Syrian file.
Ibrahim Kaban, Kurdish researcher and director of the Geostrategic Network for Studies, told Enab Baladi that the agreements being discussed today between Turkey, the regime, and Russia will most likely be directed against the SDF and will try to put pressure on the American forces that support it.
On June 15, the Turkish Defense Ministry said that at least 67 terrorists were “neutralized” in a strike on their headquarters in Tal Rifaat and Manbij towns in response to the targeting of Turkish bases in northern Syria two days before.
In response to the Turkish defense statement, the SDF media center said that its forces were not present in Tal Rifaat, while 5 SDF fighters were killed in Manbij.
Pro-SDF Hawar news agency said that the Turkish air force targeted the southern countryside of Afrin and villages in the vicinity of Tal Rifaat, leaving dead and wounded members of the Syrian regime forces, and destroyed their military vehicle, along with five dead SDF members in Manbij.
Is escalation continued?
Over the past years, Turkey launched three military operations in northern Syria, during which it took control of geographical areas north and east of Aleppo and areas of the countryside of al-Hasakah and Raqqa,
It is still stationed there to this day, but the field situation in the region has returned to calm since 2020, according to international understandings between Russia, the US, and Turkey.
Al-Ahmad believes that Turkey is still striving to end the experience of the Autonomous Administration, which is spearheaded by the PKK.
Over the past years, Turkey has given Washington several deadlines to separate the SDF or the Syrian Kurdish wing from the PKK, but the latter did not succeed in that, assuming that it wanted to do so.
A few days ago, the PKK declared the end of the “unilateral” ceasefire with Turkey, which it declared its inception in the aftermath of the disaster of the earthquake last February.
In this regard, al-Ahmad believes that the escalation could continue against the leaders of the Kurdish party, ruling out that it will turn into a ground action in the near future.
Alwan, from Jusoor Center, believes that the field conditions are not necessarily heading towards military action, but at the same time, Turkey continues its “deterrence policy” based on targeting any movement of the SDF.
He told Enab Baladi that the “Turkish deterrence policy” is based on targeting individuals belonging to the PKK within the SDF.
Today’s escalation is part of the exchange of messages of resentment between countries, and it may also carry fears of upcoming political changes related to the Ukrainian file and Iran’s file in the region, but it is too early to talk about this matter, according to Alwan.
He added that the bombing targeting Turkish lands came from the SDF-controlled vicinity of Tal Rifaat, but they are areas of Russian influence, and the matter is often related to the Russian dissatisfaction with the Turkish positions in Central Europe regarding the Kosovo file and has nothing to do with the file of normalization with the regime or files related to Syria.
Since the US view of the region is not in the interest of Turkey’s plan for the region, according to what the Kurdish researcher Ibrahim Kaban believes, Turkey is working to intensify its pressure on the SDF in order to force it to accept a Russian initiative that may be in its interest, he added.
What is the region’s future?
The pressure on the SDF may result in a “settlement” with Russia in the region, which the Syrian regime will benefit from, as it will regain control over new areas, says researcher Ibrahim Kaban regarding the future of the region.
Naturally, any “settlement” between Turkey and the Syrian regime is also in its interest, especially with regard to the future of the opposition factions in the region, whatever the reward the regime will offer Turkey.
For his part, al-Ahmad, an expert in eastern Syria, believes that the regime’s condition on Turkey’s withdrawal from Syria cannot be implemented, especially since Moscow is interested in Turkey’s interests, as it is its only outlet after the siege imposed on it after its war in Ukraine.
Russia can put more pressure on the regime to accept the expansion of the 1998 Adana Agreement and to recognize the Turkish military presence in northern Syria.
Al-Ahmad added that the US Army positions today have come within the framework of arranging a new vision with the Turks, based on reducing support for the SDF or putting an end to the actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ cadres in the eastern Euphrates region, in return for opening a broader relationship with the Arab tribes.
Al-Ahmad believes that Washington’s strategy may move from fighting the cells of the Islamic State in cooperation with the SDF to fighting the IS sleeper cells and the Iranian militias in Syria, which have become a threat to the American forces in the Syrian Jazira region.
The new US strategy may take into account Turkish concerns or interests in the region, especially since the new Turkish intelligence chief, Ibrahim Kalin, and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan are aware of these US concerns and interests in the region.
Turkey’s realization of these details may push it to formulate an agreement in northeastern Syria, which would allow an end to the power of the SDF or the extension and intrusion of the PKK and make room for the Arab clans.
SDF alliances discourage Turkey
Despite the fact that the US laid the foundation stone for building what is known today as the SDF, the latter forged new alliances with the enemies of its supporters without comment or reaction from Washington during the past years.
With the battles launched by Turkey and the National Army on the one hand, and the US and SDF on the other hand, and Russia and the Syrian regime on the other, against the Islamic State, the three sides competed to control new areas and establish themselves in them, but the US preferred the subsequent withdrawal from the eastern and northern regions of Aleppo, leaving the SDF alone.
With the repeated Turkish military operations against the SDF in the region, the latter was forced to conclude an alliance with Russia, to establish a military base at the Menagh military airport, north of Tal Rifaat, announcing that the Turkish advance had stopped at the expense of the SDF.
From time to time, rumors circulate on social media about the withdrawal of Russian forces from Tal Rifaat and its surroundings to facilitate the entry of Turkish forces into the area, but soon the Syrian regime, Russia’s main ally, denies such reports.
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