Tactic is to advance into Arab-majority areas and drive a wedge between YPG-controlled territory, observers say.
Arab and Kurdish civilians flee following Turkish bombardment in Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain [Delil Souleiman/AFP]
In the first hours of Operation Peace Spring, Turkish air raids across the border reached as far as Qamishli in the east and further west of Kobane.
Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based Middle East analyst, told Al Jazeera the scale of the attack surprised many analysts.
“They’ve already hit 300km length and 50km depth, almost all major cities are hit,” Civiroglu said.
Soner Cagaptay, Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s research programme director, told Al Jazeera Turkey’s assault at this point was focused on Arab-majority towns.
“I think that’s quite a smart choice for Ankara because of the fact that Turkish troops will be more welcome in Arab-majority areas, given how friendly Turkey has been towards the Arab population,” Cagaptay said.
He said Turkey will continue to drive a wedge between Kurdish-controlled territory as a strategy to undermine the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and weaken the political authority that controls the border region with Turkey.
The SDF is spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has operated inside Turkey for decades. The PKK has been branded a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey and several other countries.
Wednesday’s cross-border operation was not the first. Last year, Turkey launched a similar offensive dubbed Operation Olive Branch into Syria’s Afrin town to “clear the area of terrorists”.
The SDF, while not wanting to comment on specifics, told Al Jazeera it was reviewing Turkish military strategy during Olive Branch to map out a response to the current operation.
According to local activists on the ground, the number one target for Turkey is the Arab-majority town of Tal Abyad, where Ankara hopes to quickly establish a ground presence.
Turkish security analyst and former special forces soldier Necdet Ozcelik told Al Jazeera he expects the first phase of Turkey’s operation will only last about 10 days, or a couple of weeks maximum, with the goal to take control of the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
The offensive will also involve thousands of Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels providing ground support for Turkish commandos and its regular soldiers.
Civiroglu said two scenarios were likely to unfold: Turkey intensifying ground operations, or the operation being halted because of condemnation from the international community.
“Trump is under pressure, the Turkish government is under pressure, the UN Security Council will meet today … The world is not buying arguments of the Turkish government,” he said.
“The SDF always wanted good relations [with Turkey] … Kurdish sympathy is very strong, that’s why there’s strong diplomatic efforts to put an end to this.”
The possibility remains that Syrian government forces of President Bashar al-Assad may try to capture the main city of Manbij, if the United States decides to withdraw its troops from there without giving early warning to the Turks.
“In this case, the Syrian army may try to capture Manbij before the Turkish forces or the FSA,” Ozcelik said.
“We might be seeing some sort of tension, or maybe limited confrontation, between the FSA elements and the Assad regime forces in Manbij area, but not in the eastern part.”
The SDF responded to Turkey’s military action with artillery attacks and rockets fired into Turkish territory.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said on Twitter the Kurdish fighters would not allow Turkish troops to advance further. “We will use all our possibilities against Turkish aggression,” he said.
Heavy fighting was taking place in Syrian border villages between advancing Turkish forces and SDF soldiers on Thursday.
Ozcelik said the Kurds were no match for the advancing Turkish-led forces.
“The YPG elements are composed of a lot of PKK ideology people, and they forcibly recruited many people who did not have serious military experience,” he said. “I’m expecting a lot of defections from the YPG side, so the Turkish military is going to take advantage of that.”
Robert Wesley of the Terrorism Research Initiative told Al Jazeera that Turkey will also suffer setbacks considering how vast the area is that it wants to control.
“It will require huge amounts of direct military engagement from the Turkish side,” Wesley said.
“The use of the FSA, that will also be limited [because] these groups are not really well-trained. They don’t have a strong track record with more sophisticated defences.”
Turkey may not have the appetite for sustaining significant casualties, Wesley said, which a serious military encounter with the SDF would necessitate.
“I don’t think either side is particularly well prepared for the engagement,” he said.
The biggest challenge for the SDF is not having a weapon system that can counter Turkish air attacks, Civiroglu said.
“[Even so] they have said they will defend themselves until the end,” he noted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned Ankara after the Turkish operation began to stress that Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity be respected.
The Kremlin said it would not interfere further in Syria after years of supporting Assad’s forces against rebel groups, but cautioned Turkey not to take any steps that would destabilise the region.
Cagaptay said Moscow has no choice but to back Turkey’s move. “The most Russia will do is to voice support behind closed doors, even though they may publicly criticise the operation,” he said.
He said the Kremlin may even be welcoming Ankara’s military action.
“The [Syrian] regime and Russia consider Turkey a threat, so by provoking Turkey to attack Kurds really Russia is hitting two birds with one,” Cagaptay said. “Hitting Kurds, trying to make Kurds dependent on Russia, at the same time allow Turkey to suppress the Kurds, not allow them to make gains.”
Even if Turkey is successful in securing its so-called “safe-zone” to return about two million Syrian refugees, there will be major challenges ahead, observers said.
The complex issue of containing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) fighters who are still active in the region must be addressed by Turkey.
As seen by the suicide attack claimed by the armed group in Raqqa on an SDF intelligence base, killing 13 people, ISIL may be defeated militarily but sleeper cells are still prevalent.
“It’s unfamiliar territory for Turkey,” Civiroglu said. “It’s Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians, and Yazidis of the region [who] fought these people.”
Suriye’de çatışmalar hafiflerken, yolsuzlukla mücadele, ekonomi ve siyasetin yeniden inşası gibi sorunlar gündeme gelmeye başladı. Bu dönem halk arasında “ülkeyi bekleyen ikinci savaş” olarak tanımlanıyor.
A suicide attack killed four U.S. personnel in northern Syria Wednesday, costing Washington its worst combat losses in the war-torn country since 2014 as it prepares to withdraw. Nine Syrian civilians and five U.S.-backed fighters were also killed in the attack.
The bombing, claimed by the Islamic State (ISIL) group, comes after U.S. President Donald Trump’s shock announcement last month that he was ordering a full troop withdrawal from Syria because the jihadists had been “largely defeated”.
The Pentagon said, “Two U.S. servicemembers, one Department of Defense (DoD) civilian and one contractor supporting DoD were killed and three servicemembers were injured while conducting a local engagement in Manbij.”
“Initial reports indicate an explosion caused the casualties, and the incident is under investigation,” it said, adding that the names of the dead were being withheld until 24 hours after their families were informed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said two Americans soldiers, nine Syrian civilians, and five U.S.-backed fighters were killed in the attack on a restaurant in the northern city of Manbij near the Turkish border.
Rubble littered the outside of the eatery in the city center and its facade was blackened by the blast, footage from a Kurdish news agency showed.
According to Pentagon statistics, Wednesday’s blast was the deadliest attack for U.S. anti-ISIL forces in Syria since they deployed in 2014.
The U.S. Department of Defense has previously only reported two American personnel killed in combat in Syria, in separate incidents.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria, said it was the first suicide attack in the city in 10 months.
Addressing a gathering of U.S. ambassadors in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence did not comment on the attack, saying only that the United States would ensure the defeat of IS, also known as ISIL.
“We’ll stay in the region and we’ll stay in the fight to ensure that ISIL does not rear its ugly head again,” he said.
The bombing comes as Syrian Kurds present in areas around Manbij rejected any Turkish presence in a planned “safe zone” to include Kurdish-held areas along the frontier.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies, who Ankara views as “terrorists” on its southern flank.
Washington, which has relied heavily on the Kurds in its campaign against IS in Syria, has sought guarantees for their safety since Trump’s pullout announcement.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would set up a “security zone” in northern Syria following a suggestion by Trump.
But senior Syrian Kurdish political leader Aldar Khalil said any Turkish deployment in Kurdish-held areas was “unacceptable”.
He said the Kurds would accept the deployment of UN forces along a separation line between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops.
But “other choices are unacceptable as they infringe on the sovereignty of Syria and the sovereignty of our autonomous region,” Khalil told AFP.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIL.
They have taken heavy losses in a campaign now nearing its conclusion, with the jihadists confined to an ever-shrinking enclave of just 15 square kilometers (under six square miles).
But the jihadists have continued to claim attacks nationwide and abroad.
Ankara has welcomed Washington’s planned withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, but the future of Kurdish fighters has poisoned relations between the NATO allies.
On Monday, Erdogan and Trump had a telephone conversation to ease tensions after the U.S. leader threatened to “devastate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara attacked Kurdish forces in Syria, and called for a “safe zone”.
No ‘outside interference’
Erdogan said he and Trump had a “quite positive” conversation in which they spoke of “a 20-mile (30 kilometers) security zone along the Syrian border… set up by us”.
The YPG-led forces fighting IS in a statement said they would provide “necessary support to set up the safe zone” – if it came with international guarantees to “prevent any outside interference”, in an apparent reference to Turkey.
The Turkish army has launched two major operations in Syria in recent years.
In the latest, Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies seized the northwestern enclave of Afrin from the Kurds last year.
Critics have accused Turkish troops and their proxies of military occupation and abuses in Syrian sovereign territory.
But while Ankara has spoken of a YPG-free “security zone” under its control, analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said it was not immediately clear what the U.S. president meant by a “safe zone”, or who he thought would patrol it.
Analysts were “waiting for a clarification from Washington to see what the president really meant”, he told AFP.
The U.S. planned withdrawal has sent the Kurds scrambling to seek a new ally in Damascus, which has long rejected Kurdish self-rule.
With military backing from Russia since 2015, Syria’s regime has advanced against jihadists and rebels, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.
A northwestern enclave held by jihadists and pockets held by Turkish troops and their allies remain beyond its reach, along with the much larger Kurdish region.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Syrian government must take control of the north.
(Cover: An image grab taken from a video obtained by AFPTV shows US troops gathered at the scene of a suicide attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, January 16, 2019. /VCG Photo)
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Salih Muslim, the former co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), denied claims made by US President Donald Trump that Syrian Kurds have sold oil to Iran.
During a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump said he was not happy that the Kurds are selling oil to Iran.
“I didn’t like the fact that [the Kurds] are selling the small oil that they have to Iran, and we asked them not to do it,” the US president stated.
It was not entirely clear whether Trump was referring to the Syrian Kurds or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
Speaking to Kurdish journalist Mutlu Civiroglu, Muslim rejected the American leader’s claims and said there is only local use of oil by Kurds in Syria.
“I asked our people here in the administration, in the YPG [People’s Protection Units], and the others, and they said there are no sales of oil to any side outside of Syria,” the former PYD head said.
The Syrian Kurds have no borders with Iran to sell oil to them, Muslim added, “there is no way, everybody should know the reality.”
Muslim suggested Trump was referring to “other Kurds” because “Syrian Kurds have no relations with Iran.”
“We have no deal, nor sales of oil [with] them, not at all,” he said. “Maybe others are doing so, but that’s not our business.”
According to Çeleng Omer, a former university lecturer from Afrin with expertise on oil, while Iran produces four million barrels per day (bpd), Syria’s production before the war was 400,000 bpd, which equals 10 percent of Iranian oil production.
According to Omer, oil production in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) areas in northeastern Syria is only 50,000 barrels. He said this quantity is “consumed locally by refining it in primitive refineries,” adding that Trump may have “confused the Kurds in Syria, with those in Iraq.”
“There is no border between the Syrian Kurdish region with Iran, and the oil produced in their areas is not enough to satisfy local needs, and the war destroyed a large part of the oil fields” which need to be restored before being exported, Omer explained.
“The oil produced in SDF areas meets the needs of fuel in the domestic market only.”
Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said: “Trump’s statement could mean a couple of things.”
“One, he declassified hitherto classified info about the extent of YPG-Iranian relations in Syria. Or two, he mixed up talking points in his head from an earlier conversation with Turkey about Kurds in Iraq and Syria.”
Meanwhile, Alan Mohtadi, head of T&S Consulting Energy and Security, told Kurdistan 24 he is certain President Trump confused the Syrian Kurds with Kurds in Iraq.
Mohtadi explained that Syrian Kurdistan produces between 30-40,000 bpd, adding that almost all of the oil is used for local consumption.
“They would need to produce three to four times more, get a decent transport route (the border with the Kurdistan Region is tightly controlled), and transport it via trucks to Iran,” he said.
“This is not profitable and logistically almost impossible.”
The KRG announced in November that oil exports to Iran stopped after a new round of US sanctions were enforced.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany
Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed Sunday to prevent a power vacuum in Syria after U.S. ground forces withdraw, in a phone conversation days after the U.S. president shocked global partners by announcing Americans would leave the war-scarred country.
Turkey was a rare ally that lauded Trump’s momentous decision to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, where they have been helping assisting in a multinational fight against ISIL.
“The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria,” the Turkish presidency said in a statement.
Hours earlier Trump had tweeted that he and Erdogan “discussed ISIL, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area.” Erdogan tweeted shortly thereafter, saying the two leaders “agreed to increase coordination on many issues including trade relations and the developments in Syria,” dubbing the call “productive.”
U.S. troops will leave under the auspices of a new Pentagon chief set to start next month, after Jim Mattis resigned from the post citing key differences, including on Syria, with the often-impulsive Trump.
An American exit would allow Turkish troops to move against Kurdish fighters in Syria who have played a key role in the war against ISIL but are deemed terrorists by Ankara. Many U.S. politicians and international allies fear the withdrawal is premature and would further destabilize the already devastated region.
A U.S. withdrawal, said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, will open the way “for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds, and a bloody war will begin.”
French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday said he “deeply regretted” Trump’s decision, and that “an ally must be reliable.” Several U.S. politicians from both parties rejected Trump’s claim that ISIL had been defeated, and many in the US military expressed alarm and dismay at the thought of suddenly abandoning Washington’s Kurdish partners.
And Trump’s sudden decision sparked turmoil within his administration, prompting the resignation of Mattis as well as of Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition.
Plans for the troop withdrawal will now be overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who Trump on Sunday said would replace Mattis starting January 1.
The US president tweeted that the two leaders had “a long and productive call,” and also discussed the Islamic State (IS) group and “heavily expanded trade,” AFP reported.
Trump shocked US allies on Friday when he announced plans to pull the 2,000 US troops out of Syria, where they have been helping coordinate a multinational fight against IS. On Sunday, a US military spokesperson said the order for their withdrawal had been signed, without providing further details.
French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Trump’s decision, saying “an ally must be reliable”. In a sign of the growing diplomatic rift between the two leaders, Macron said: “I deeply regret the decision” by Trump to pull out US troops.
Still, the move was lauded by Turkey.
The decision followed an earlier Trump phone call with Erdogan, who has been pressing for a US withdrawal.
The Turkish presidency said in a statement: “The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria.”
Erdogan had said on Friday that Turkey would take over the fight against IS in Syria as the US withdraws.
An American pullout would also allow Turkish troops to move against the hardened Kurdish fighters in Syria deemed terrorists by the Ankara government – but who have strongly supported US efforts there.
A US withdrawal, said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, “will open way for Turkey to start its operations against the Kurds, and a bloody war will begin”.
Trump’s sudden decision sparked turmoil in his administration, prompting the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, to be effective on 28 February, as well as of Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the anti-IS coalition.
In announcing his resignation, Mattis distributed a candid resignation letter addressed to Trump that laid bare the growing divide between them, and implicitly criticized Trump for failing to value America’s closest allies, who fought alongside the United States in both conflicts. Mattis said that Trump deserved to have a defense secretary more aligned with his views, Reuters reported.
Trump on Sunday said he would be replacing Mattis two months earlier than specified in his resignation, a move officials said was driven by Trump’s anger at Mattis’s resignation letter and its rebuke of his foreign policy, Reuters reported.
Several US politicians of both parties rejected Trump’s claim that the forces of IS had been defeated, and many in the US military expressed alarm and dismay at the thought of suddenly abandoning their Kurdish allies.
Criticism continued on Sunday television news shows, according to the Wall Street Journal:
“I am deeply, deeply concerned and I oppose strongly the president’s decision apparently to withdraw troops from Syria,” Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said on CBS, also mentioning Trump’s plans to remove about half the US troops in Afghanistan.
“These two decisions would be disastrous,” Cheney said. “They would really, in many ways, hand the victories to our enemies to Iran, to ISIS in Syria, the Taliban, al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
Incoming White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney countered on Fox News that the president had long made his intentions clear. “We recognize the fact that this is unpopular within the beltway,” he said. “We recognize this fact it’s unpopular within the Defense Department. It’s very popular with ordinary American people.”