Turkey appears to be aiming to keep tensions high in northeast Syria with a series of Turkish drone strikes targeting senior Kurdish officials.
The relative calm in northern Syria that had settled after Turkey shelved its plan for a new military incursion against Syrian Kurdish groups in the absence of a green light from Russia and the United States was shaken on January 8 after an improvised explosive device detonated near Tell Abyad along the Turkish border, killing three Turkish soldiers.
In response to the attack, the Turkish army and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels struck several Kurdish positions near Kobani, Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. According to the Turkish Defense Ministry, more than 10 Syrian militants were killed in the retaliatory attacks.
Although the Kurdish-led autonomy in northeast Syria denied the charges, saying the attack had nothing to do with them, the Turkish attacks extended to Hasakah and Tell Tamir. Local sources reported that at least 28 villages came under fire.
It would be misleading to interpret these attacks as mere retaliation. According to Kurdish journalist Nazim Dastan, who is currently in the area, in addition to drone strikes, the Turkish army for the first time used howitzers to hit the city of Kobani and other nearby towns in the latest attacks which left one dead and 17 injured.
“These attacks were extraordinary in every way,” Dastan told Al-Monitor. “I believe Turkey tried something different here. The attacks were aimed, as if, to gauge the pulse in Kobani or the potential reactions of the United States and Russia.
Dastan pointed out that although the explosion that killed the Turkish troops took place near Tell Abyad, the retaliatory attacks targeted Kobani and nearby villages.
“The explosion took place just along the border. These areas are under Turkish control and are constantly monitored by surveillance and predator drones. It is therefore not easy to approach the area and plant a bomb on the road where the patrols are carried out,” Dastan said, adding that all the victims of the Turkish strikes were civilians.
Arguing that Kobani has been one of Turkey’s main targets since several villages near the town fell under the control of the Islamic State in 2014, Dastan said: “Turkey has never given up on its plan to seize Kobani. They are looking for an opportunity for it.
Turkey is keeping the region under fire in a bid to maintain the status quo in the Operation Peace Spring region and crush Kurdish-led autonomy in northern Syria. Yet Ankara’s escalation strategy has other goals as well.
Although the ceasefire agreement between Ankara and Moscow in 2019 ensured the withdrawal of Kurdish forces to a depth of up to 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the Turkish border, it did not entirely satisfy the Turkey. Moreover, the Turkish military presence in the region and Ankara’s threats for further incursions are aimed at foiling attempts to secure constitutional status for the Kurdish-ruled autonomous region through dialogue with Damascus.
This strategy aims in a way to ripen the conditions for bringing Russia and Syria closer to Ankara’s bosom on the Syrian Kurdish question.
The Syrian Kurds, for their part, argue that Ankara’s strategy receives tacit support from Moscow. According to a Syrian Kurdish source, the increase in Turkish attacks against Syrian Kurdish groups aims to intimidate Kurdish groups and people living under the Kurdish-led autonomy in northern Syria while playing into the hands of the Syrian government .
“Turkey’s attacks also serve Damascus because the Syrian government seeks to reestablish its control east of the Euphrates without negotiating with the autonomous administration,” the source told Al-Monitor on strict condition of anonymity. .
Syrian Kurds widely believe that the talks between Turkish intelligence officials and their Syrian government counterparts focus primarily on the collapse of Kurdish-led autonomy in northern Syria. Therefore, Turkish military pressure on Syrian Kurdish groups is considered useful and tacitly supported by Moscow.
Whenever Turkey threatens with a new military incursion against Syrian Kurdish regions, Russian-mediated talks between Kurdish groups and Damascus become an item on the agenda. For example, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a new offensive in northern Syria in October, Syrian Kurdish officials said the address for a potential solution in the region was Damascus and that Russia should use its influence on the Syrian government to facilitate a dialogue.
Yet the quest for dialogue has now been replaced by mutual recriminations and desperation amid growing tensions between Damascus and Syrian Kurdish groups. According to the Kurdish sources, Damascus has refrained from any form of talks with the Kurds and is counting on time for the conditions to become ripe for the Kurds to abandon their areas, abandoning their hope of the United States.
The second reason for Ankara’s escalation strategy has to do with internal divisions between Turkish-backed opposition groups. Whenever clashes between Syrian Kurdish groups and Turkish troops subside, the internal rivalry between Turkish-backed armed opposition groups intensifies. Following Ankara’s abandonment of military incursion plans, cooperation between the two main Turkish-backed factions broke down. Al Mutasim Brigade announcement On December 17, he would no longer work with the Ahrar al-Sharqiyah in the Euphrates Shield, Source of Peace and Olive Branch regions.
Such internal divisions complicate Ankara’s plans on the ground. In addition to the internal rivalry, the discontent of Turkish-backed groups towards Ankara is said to increase as the purchasing power of Syrian fighters’ salaries declines due to the collapse of the Turkish lira.
According to the Kurdish sources, Turkish intelligence officials met with the commanders of the main Syrian opposition factions in Ankara on December 30 with the aim of resolving the issues. Syrian commanders are said to have conveyed a series of demands to the Turkish side, including increased ammunition and logistical support, to receive their salaries in US dollars instead of Turkish Lira, the deployment of Turkish troops between factions of the Syrian opposition to prevent internal clashes and strengthen protection through surveillance and armed drones.
Meanwhile, Ankara has argued that joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the line separating Kurdish-held and opposition areas have failed to thwart attacks by Kurdish groups. Similarly, Kurdish groups have also criticized Moscow for failing to prevent Turkish attacks on their regions.
Ankara also argues that the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, a group affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is deployed in areas where the People’s Protection Units (YPG) withdrew under the peace accord. 2019 between Ankara and Moscow. Ankara considers both the PKK and YPG terrorist organizations.
Yet, according to Dastan, Ankara uses this argument to try to legitimize its attacks on Kurdish-held areas. “The Syrian revolutionary youth has existed since [war] has begun. Today they are organized in all the towns of the region,” Dastan said. “It’s not an armed team. There is no need for these kinds of groups in the presence of the Asayish Force and the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]. I believe [Turkey] uses this group to justify its attacks.
Turkish strikes have killed at least 11 people in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria since August. During a strike on December 25 in Kobani, five Syrian revolutionary youth activists were killed. Condemning the attack, Mazlum Kobane, commander-in-chief of the US-backed SDF, described the attack as “the continuation of Turkey’s occupation policies which aim for security and safety in the north and east of Syria”.