A version of this article, entitled ‘New Year, same Chaos in Syria,’ appeared in the Australian Newspaper on 3/1
‘On October 9th, at 3pm, the attack on Ras al-ain began. There was artillery shelling. We sent the women and children out of the town. Heavy shelling and airstrikes. They were concentrating on the east of the city, where the water supply is located. To stop the water pumping. The shelling was uninterrupted. We sheltered underground. It continued all night. The next morning, when we went out, the city was on fire.’
Dilwar, a 55 year old Kurdish refugee from the town of Ras al-Ain (the Kurds call it ‘Sere Kaniyeh’) is describing the opening night of Turkey’s Operation ‘Peace Spring.’ This is the euphemism Ankara gives for its carving out of a zone of control on its border with Syria.3Around 200,000 people left their homes in the wake of the advance of the Turks and their allies – the Syrian National Army. Most have yet to go home. We are sitting in the front room of Dilwar’s son’s house, in the city of Qamishli.
Dilwar and his family were fortunate in that they were able to seek shelter with relatives. Many of those who left Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad and the other towns now under Turkish control did not have this option. In Hasakeh and Qamishli, schools have been turned into makeshift, temporary refugee camps. Whole families are camped in classrooms hastily transformed into places of residence. It is only the most temporary of solutions. The schools, after all, must also be used for learning. This means that with winter now here, the refugee families face the prospect of taking up residence in the tent camps further east – the Newroz camp, near the town of Derik, or further afield, across the border into Iraq.
The Newroz camp was hastily assembled in the summer of 2014, to house some of the Yezidi survivors of the Islamic State’s attempt at genocide during its season of advance. Those were different times. Then, the Kurdish YPG was fighting in close alliance with the Americans, and the western world was united in revulsion for the murderous jihadis of IS, and admiration for the courage of their foes.
This time it is different. The Kurds’ enemies now are the army of a powerful NATO member state, along with its Sunni Arab rebel proxies. The air power and heavy artillery is all on the side of the Turks. International public opinion might still largely favor the Kurds, but for the most part the west is weary of Syria, confused at its intricacies, revolted at its brutalities and wishing nothing more than to be free of it. Having witnessed both the displaced families of 2014 and those of 2019, nevertheless, this author can confirm that they look remarkably similar to one another.
The Turkish and allied assault on northern Syria traces back to a telephone conversation between Presidents Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Donald Trump on October 6, the contents of which the Turkish president interpreted as meaning that the US would not oppose a Turkish incursion. While Administration officials fiercely deny that any ‘green light’ was given by Trump during the call, a statement issued a few hours later by the White House made clear that US forces would not interfere with any invasion, and indeed ‘would no longer be in the area.’ This was sufficient for Erdogan. The invasion commenced with the indiscriminate shelling of October 9. Ground forces entered Syria on the following day.
Two weeks of combat which changed the face of the strategic situation in northern Syria followed. As the Turks and their Islamist militia allies moved forward, the Kurdish leadership, fearing catastrophe, invited Syrian regime and Russian forces across the Euphrates.
Evidence rapidly emerged of atrocities committed by the Syrian National Army, Turkey’s Islamist militia allies in the incursion. On October 12, a Kurdish politician, 34 year old Hevrin Khalaf, was murdered by Turkish-aligned militia, along with her driver and guard, on the Hasakeh-Manbij road. Photographic evidence emerged of the torture of prisoners and the desecration of corpses by the SNA militiamen.
The SNA is controlled not by the Turkish armed forces but by the MIT – Turkey’s national intelligence organization. Ankara denies any systematic strategy of terrorizing the population. The army has now issued a manual of behavior for the SNA. It is hopefully entitled ‘Fighter – not killer.’ The manual includes references both to Islamic and to international law. Among other exhortations, it forbids fighters from filming their activities.
On October 14, Assad’s army returned to the cities of Kobani, Qamishli and other border towns that they had left in 2012. It was the end of a period of relative stability for these areas, under a de facto US-Kurdish protectorate. The fighting formally ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire on October 22.
But the ceasefire is largely a fiction, as Inquirer witnessed in several days’ reporting on the front line in the Tal Tamr area in late November. Turkey accuses the Kurdish fighters of failing to entirely withdraw from the areas it was required to retreat from in accordance with the ceasefire. The SDC/SDF, meanwhile, asserts that Turkish-aligned forces have committed at least 200 acts of violation of the ceasefire since October 22, including artillery, drone and mortar attacks. Both claims probably have something to them.
There are daily exchanges of fire. The villages north west of Tal Tamr directly adjacent to the Turkish lines are largely deserted. The SDF burn tyres and oil at the entrance of the village of Um Kaif, raising a thick black smoke intended to blur the vision of the Turkish Bayraktar strike drones that reap a heavy toll among the ranks of the Kurdish fighters. It is a primitive tactic, and of limited use. David Eubank, a former US Army Special Forces officer who runs a medical NGO based in Tal Tamr told Inquirer that he estimates that drones account for around half of the deaths on the Kurdish side in the operation.
When the artillery opens up, those civilians who have remained in Um Kaif rapidly flee. A line of vans laden with mattresses, chairs, rugs,tables are soon making their way to the relative safety of Tal Tamr itself. The mortars and artillery from the regime positions rapidly respond. We learned later that a regime soldier had been killed in the exchange of fire. This is what the ceasefire looks like.
Further west, in Ain Issa, the SNA and the Turks have tried two offensives since October 22. On November 6 and then again on November 20 they attempted unsuccessfully to take the town. There are near daily fatalities on both sides. But for now, the lines are largely static.
The Assad regime soldiers in Tal Tamr and Um Kaif are unshaven, poorly equipped – and surprisingly friendly. Very different from the haughty and suspicious way the regime army tends to carry itself on its home turf. An SDF fighter confides in us that the government’s men sometimes come to beg for food from the SDF positions. Their own supplies are meager, a few boxes of potatoes and tomatoes. They are short on medicines too.
At least for now, the regime is making no attempt to reimpose its full authority on the ground. The roadblocks that remain every few kilometers on the roads between the towns are still manned by the SDF. The regime army is deployed only along the border, facing the Turks. In the cities, too, it is the Kurds who are in control on the ground. The journalists and NGO workers who fled the advance of the regime in mid-October have cautiously begun to return. No one knows how long the current situation will hold.
So where may things be heading? Kurdish leaders interviewed by Inquirer are adamant that they will only accept a full rapprochement with the regime in the context of a political agreement. Such an agreement, in turn, would need to take account of their determination to maintain their current structures of governance and security within the framework of any new constitution.
General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the SDF, told Inquirer that ‘if the regime wants us to come back to the center, then they must fulfil the demands of the people here – Kurds and Arabs. For eight years, the people have had autonomy here, and the regime must accept this demand.’
The general further notes that contrary to initial expectations, the Americans have not completely left. The SDF remain the preferred US partner in ongoing anti-IS operations. The remaining US presence may be emboldening the Kurds to take a less compromising stance in the current Russian mediated negotiations with Damascus.
Syria today remains fragmented, thoroughly penetrated by outside powers, and broken. Fully eight armies of various kinds are today active in the narrow space between the Euphrates River and the Iraq-Syria and Turkey-Syria borders. These are the Turks, their Syrian National Army Allies, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, The SAA (regime forces), the Russians, the Americans, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards with their various militia proxies, and of course the remaining networks of the Islamic State.
The main victims of the ongoing conflicts, meanwhile, are the long suffering civilian population, whose desire for security and normal life are no different from any other civilians. In the words of Anisa, a 38 year old Arab refugee from Ras al-Ain, as told to Inquirer from her family’s cramped room in the Liwa school in Qamishli, ‘We don’t want assistance. We won’t go to a tent camp with winter coming on. I have been driven from my home three times in the last five years. From Ras al ain by Nusra in 2013. From Raqqa by ISIS a year later. Now from Ras al Ain again by Erdogan. I’m 38 and I look 50. All I want is my home, in Ras al Ain. And to live in my own country in peace. Nothing more.’
It is a hope shared by hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians across northern Syria as the year draws to a close. And with Syria’s wars now entering their ninth year, it is a hope which – tragically – appears as distant and as far from realization as at any time in the past decade.
As 2020 begins, the chaotic space taking in the ruined and partially collapsed states of Iraq and Syria looks set to continue to host a bewildering series of interlocking conflicts. As ever, it will be the civilians of both countries who will continue to bear the brunt of the associated tragedy.