At least 9,500 people have fled their homes in Ain Issa, northeastern Syria, following an escalation in clashes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (TSNA) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ) led by the Kurds in mid-December.
The SDF – the military forces of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava – which control Ain Issa, report daily shelling of the city by forces backed by Turkey over the past week. The sound of fighting could be heard from sunset until noon.
Ain Issa is about 45 km (28 miles) by road from Tel Abyad, a town bordering the Turkish border and captured in October 2019 during Operation Peace Spring in Ankara.
Operation Peace Spring was launched following the brutal withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria to secure a so-called Turkish border security zone by clearing the region of fighters from People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The SDF is made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Qualified as a “terrorist” organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, the PKK has been leading an armed uprising against the Turkish state since the 1980s.
The Turkish government said the security zone would extend 32 km (20 miles) deep from the Turkish border in Syria and 444 km (276 miles) wide between the Euphrates and Iraq in order to settle up to ‘to two million Syrian refugees currently hosted by Turkey.
The operation allowed Turkey to capture the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain near its border and control an area 20 km deep in Syria.
While SDF press secretary Siyamend Ali told Al Jazeera that skirmishes with Turkish-backed forces were not new since the operation, he said TSNA reinforcements had been deployed to Ain Issa over the past month – clashes escalated on December 18.
“Especially in the past two weeks, Turkish-backed mercenaries have carried out violent attacks against the M4 international road, the town of Ain Issa, the surrounding area and along all contact lines. [with] the SDF, ”Ali said.
A high-level source at the Turkish Defense Ministry told Al Jazeera that there were no clashes in Ain Issa beyond the area under the control of the Turkish armed forces.
“Recently, PKK-YPG terrorists based in Ain Issa, south of M4, attacked our troops north of M4, but they received the response they deserved,” the Turkish defense ministry source said. .
“This event cannot and should not be characterized as an attack on Ain Issa or an extension of Operation Peace Spring.”
Civil unrest and victims
According to the United Nations, the city of Ain Issa had 7,089 inhabitants in May 2020.
The AANES Humanitarian Office reported that 6,500 people from the town, plus 3,000 others from surrounding villages, have fled since mid-December.
A man who remained in the town, demanding to retain his name for fear of reprisals if TSNA took over Ain Issa, said he had nowhere to flee.
“We are here and we will not leave the city… We live here in peace, and they threaten us with these attacks, what do they want?” he told Al Jazeera.
“Even if there is war, we will not leave.”
Since there is no infrastructure or IDP camp for civilians fleeing their homes, most travel to Raqqa, about 55 km south of Ain Issa.
Another man, around 50 and a member of the Ain Issa justice council, said everyone was scared.
“Those who stay are those who have their jobs here and who are most committed to the democratic institutions we have built,” he said.
According to the AANES organizations office in Ain Issa, 38 civilians were injured in the town as of December 20.
The Turkish Defense Ministry source said: “In areas under our control, we are taking all necessary security measures to normalize life and allow local people to rebuild their lives.”
“When attacked by PKK-YPG terrorists, Turkish troops react as they should to eliminate the threat they pose.”
Ali, the SDF press secretary, said the agreements in place with Turkey are supposed to prevent fighting.
“But they are trying to occupy new territory in violation of the agreements,” Ali said.
Necdet Ozcelik, a security expert and former member of the Turkish special forces, told Al Jazeera that each side is trying to legitimize its military activities.
“This is not a ceasefire agreement because an agreement is signed between legitimate actors, and neither TSNA nor Turkey considers the YPG to be legitimate actors,” Ozcelik said.
“From a Turkish perspective, this is a terrorist organization that tries to use legitimate terms to bring much more sympathy from an international audience.”
A murky ceasefire
On October 17 last year, the United States negotiated a ceasefire agreement with Turkey stipulating the need for YPG forces to withdraw from the Turkish-controlled security zone and collect heavy weapons.
The source at the Turkish Defense Ministry pointed out that the YPG continued to target the military and civilian population despite the ceasefire.
“Throughout the area of Operation Peace Spring, the PKK-YPG terrorists are constantly engaged in subversive activities such as shooting at Turkish and Syrian National Army soldiers. [and] dig tunnels to infiltrate and pass off explosives as bombings, ”they said.
Turkey said on Sunday that its army had killed 15 YPG fighters, who it said were preparing to carry out an attack in northeastern Syria.
On December 10, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint in Turkish-controlled Ras al-Ain, killing 12 people, including two Turkish security officers. Turkey holds the YPG responsible for the attack.
The Turkish Defense Ministry stressed that Ankara considered the M4 motorway to be the ceasefire line, “an approximate distance of 24 to 32 km from [the Turkish] border”.
While the SDF claims Turkey is violating agreements reached last year, Ali described the current clashes as “deep in Syria” – 35 km (22 miles) from the border.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – the political wing of the SDF – in Ain Issa, who demanded that his name not be disclosed, told Al Jazeera the clashes were over 20 miles from the border Turkish.
“Which means it is outside of what Ankara claims to be an area of threat to its so-called national security,” he said.
Ain Issa is a strategic city, militarily and in terms of transport, as it sits on the M4 motorway which begins at the Iraqi border, connects with Aleppo and continues to the Syrian coast.
“The other problem that makes Ain Issa important is that it contains the seat of the [AANES] and its institutions – Ankara aims to destroy this project by hitting its capital, ”continued the SDC member.
Ozcelik said if Turkey and its local forces captured Ain Issa, its goal of establishing a safe zone along its border would have advanced.
“If Turkey takes Ain Issa, it will be an indication of future military activities, for [YPG]/ PKK from the Ain al Arab / Kobane region as well, ”Ozcelik said.
Since the US-Turkish ceasefire last year, Russia has troops on the ground in Ain Issa and has established a base in the former coalition headquarters.
A month ago, Russia erected three new observation posts in the northern city of Ain Issa, in what Ozcelik described as Moscow trying to “penetrate” US or Turkish territorial control in the region. .
“Russians [would] like to bring as many military elements of the Syrian regime as possible to northeastern Syria, ”Ozcelik explained.
“If the [observation posts] are attacked by the ANS or Turkey, then Russia will legitimize the deployment of more troops in this area.
Ali of the SDF said Russia was supposed to observe and enforce the ceasefire agreement, especially since clashes were taking place less than a kilometer from the Moscow base.
“So far, they have not acted in accordance with this mission … [the Syrian government and Russia] did nothing to support the SDF and they continue to remain silent, ”Ali said.
According to the SDC, Russia is trying to push the AANES, which has controlled northeastern Syria since 2012, to cede control to the Syrian government.
“Russia demands that the area be returned to the regime as a condition to stop the Turkish attack,” the SDC member said.
The SDF refuses to do so, even though, as Ali explains, they expect the situation on the ground to worsen.
“Turkey’s ultimate goal in this area is to occupy this city,” Ali said.