After clashes between ‘People’s protection Units’ (YPG) and Turkish backed mercenaries of the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) came to an abrupt end west of Manbij in early March, Turkey’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation essentially was put on hold. President Erdogan’s bid to dislodge YPG from Northern Syria, started in August of 2016, ended in stagnation. Forces from both Russia and US made sure that Ankara’s efforts to capture Manbij were nullified, and ‘Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) and FSA repelled(1, 2).
This embarrassed Ankara greatly and angered Turkish President Erdogan, as TSK and FSA could not advance any further, unless they wanted to be in direct conflict with Russia and US forces—something that Ankara was not prepared to do. With its hands tied and its forces forced to pull back, Turkey tried in vain to persuade US and Russia to reconsider their actions in Manbij (3). These meetings did not prove fruitful for Turkey and on March 29th, in a reluctant move, Ankara announced an end to its Euphrates Shield operation—one that lasted eight months(4). (August 24, 2016 to March 29th, 2017)
Meanwhile, focus now shifted for YPG, as external pressure that had sought to jeopardise Raqqa operation ‘Wrath of Euphrates’ was reduced. ‘Syrian Democratic forces’ (SDF) resumed their push for Raqqa, heavily clashing with ISIS and edging ever closer towards the snake’s heart. Crossing the Euphrates River with the assistance of US Special forces, SDF troops set sights on a city west of Raqqa called, ‘Tabqa’ (5, 6). It stands as one of the last obstacles before Raqqa.
A strategically significant city known for its dam, Tabqa stood for many years under the occupation of ISIS militants, ever since August of 2014 (7). ‘Syrian Arab army’ (SAA) fought bitterly to maintain the city and its important airbase when ISIS militants were swarming around it, but were overwhelmed in the end. Majority of those captured were used for ISIS’ propaganda machine in execution videos and as a warning to those forces who dared to challenge it (8).
Years had passed since SAA’s defeat at Tabqa and ISIS now faced a new, as well as more determined foe. Coalition jets flew high above Tabqa and bombed positions around it, crippling ISIS militants defending its dam (9). Bullets ripped through the air, as SDF forces engaged with ISIS militants and edged their way closer to Tabqa’s airbase—taking it completely on March 26th (10). In a last ditch effort, ISIS claimed that Tabqa dam was on the verge of collapse due to coalition airstrikes(11). These claims circulated widely, but had no basis in reality—disproved later by SDF engineers, who found only minor damage (12).
-Ankara’s eyes on Europe:
Ankara’s operation to oust YPG from Northern Syria may have been a failure, but Erdogan vowed to reignite new operations at a later date (13). ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP) now focused on other matters across the globe; namely, gaining support for a referendum to grant greater executive powers to Erdogan. From Germany to the Netherlands, Erdogan encouraged Turks living abroad to be sure to cast their ‘Evet’ [Yes] vote in April’s referendum (14). This call for support ignited a storm in Netherlands, as authorities turned back Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s plane and turned away other AKP agents from campaigning on Dutch soil (15).
Keeping in autocratic fashion, Erdogan denounced the Dutch government as Nazis—ironic given the president’s fascist tendencies (^Ibid). AKP loyalists in Rotterdam and Istanbul, meanwhile, committed mass genocide on oranges too, through the squashing of dozens of the delicious fruits in protest—a horrifying spectacle for many (16). When AKP loyalists were not butchering food products, they were protesting in the streets with Muslim Brotherhood and Grey wolves hand gestures. Some went so far as to infiltrate the Dutch consulate building in Istanbul and replace its Dutch flag with a Turkish one (17).
Growing autocracy in Turkey for Erdogan had been simmering for months, but it was drawing towards a singular defining moment—Turkish referendum. AKP’s domestic policy of cracking down on journalists and jailing those with a ‘whiff’ of ‘Kurdish Worker’s party’ (PKK) affiliation, such as members of the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ (HDP), only could go so far (18). It would take more than this and anti-European rhetoric and crackdowns to win Erdogan the referendum. Economic and protection narratives became more prevalent in government spokespersons’ speeches (19).
Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, did not listen to Ankara’s demands for US to end its support for YPG, when he came to Istanbul on March 28th (20). Ankara doesn’t seem to take the hint that maybe, just maybe, US does not want TSK and FSA to lead the Raqqa charge. A lack of organisation, centralisation and infighting amongst FSA does not look good to the ‘United States Central Command’ (CENTCOM). Moreover, why should the United States abandon an ally that repeatedly shows its effectiveness in combating ISIS? Besides, Trump Administration had more to deal with than just balancing its relations with Turkey and YPG.
-US’ reaction to another CW attack:
After a failed offensive by FSA and ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) troops to capture northern Hama, bickering amongst Assad opposition forces increased, well SAA steadily pushed back against a splintered opposition (21). For many years now, the ‘Syrian Airforce’ (SyAF) and Russian Airforce had been targeting civilian centres in a long campaign to ‘eliminate terrorists’. (‘Terrorists’ referring to both jihadists and dissenters of Assad regime.) Dropping barrel bombs, using chlorine gas and other chemical weapons, pro-regime forces killed thousands of civilians in an effort to cripple what resistance remained (22).
The International community’s silence and inaction in prior years had given rise to a man who was not afraid to use whatever methods at his disposal to regain control of a broken country. In 2013, Assad showed the world what Sarin could do to thousands in Ghouta—dropping the substance and killing thousands through toxic suffocation (23). Denying responsibility and instead throwing blame on opposition forces, despite the overwhelming evidence presented by UN, Amnesty International, Doctors without borders and OPCW, even hiding behind Russia’s back, Assad displayed back then a refusal to care for the lives of civilians or take responsibility (24, 25, 26). The chemical weapon attacks in Khan Shaykhun in early April would show no different.
However, unlike the Obama Administration’s response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta (not doing enough), Khan Shaykhun would prompt Trump administration to take a much more ‘firmer’ stance. In retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens, and after having his heart tugged on by the sight of dead children, Trump ordered 59 tomahawk missiles to be launched at an Assad [Shayrat] airbase—a poor move for Trump (27). A poor move, not because of the act itself, but because the administration decided to inform Russia—who informed the Assad regime—beforehand (28).
Russia’s ‘tip off’ to the Assad regime allowed for it to pull most of its aircraft from the airbase, in effect only allowing the missiles to destroy a few aircraft and kill a few SAA personnel (29). This ‘symbolic’ move by the Trump Administration to deter future CW attacks has yet to show its long-term effects. However, one can say that such an act only showed, what was already evident to many, that Russia’s dedication to its ally only is rhetorical. In other words, if US decided to send ground forces into Syria to overthrow Assad, then Russia would not be willing to confront it.
-A new phase with old problems:
Well Trump administration tried further to wedge itself between Russia and Assad regime, SDF forces continued to tighten the noose around Raqqa with continued attacks near Tabqa dam. These attacks aimed at setting the groundwork for Wrath of Euphrates’ next phase. Announced on April 13th by YPG command, as SDF and USSOF edged closer to Tabqa’s west, Raqqa operations entered a new [4th] phase—aim would be to cut supply routes to Raqqa and isolate it completely (30).
During the launch of the new phase, CENTCOM jets received poor ground intel from SDF commanders, which resulted in friendly fire that killed 18 SDF fighters—most from the ‘Raqqa Hawks Brigade’, a former FSA unit that joined SDF in 2016 (31, 32). FSA supporters, as usual, were quick to jump on this tragedy and claimed that Rojava forces were deliberately targeting Arab fighters within their own ranks. An absurd claim, given that there are a large number of Arab fighters fighting in Rojava forces and that are leading in the Raqqa offensive.
Always quick to target the YPG for any failure, the anti-YPG brigade was out in full force when these airstrikes happened. It is no surprise that such a high level of scrutiny was placed on the YPG, as many FSA supporters are quick to point out the faults of a different group and ignore their owns—usual tribalism on show. This was most evident with the apologetics surrounding the attack of busses transporting civilians, as well as SAA forces, from Madaya and Zabadani to the Idlib province.
A transfer and exchange deal, agreed to by Iranian militias and FSA, that was supposed to assure safe passage of civilians of Assad besieged cities in Damascus’ west and those of rebel besieged cities in North-west of Idlib, ended in blood shed (33, 34). A suicide bomber blew up busses filled with Shiite civilians and over a hundred died, including many children. FSA and Assad supporters blamed one another, but given the history of attacks by jihadists on Assad loyalists and civilians in the area, one is to wonder if HTS or ‘Ahrar Al-sham’ (AAS) is to blame (35).
Assad opposition had devolved over the years, from a centralised force that wanted to rid Assad and establish pluralistic democracy to a splintered opposition that now was dominated by jihadists who want an Islamic caliphate. This sad regression has been due to the longevity of the Syrian conflict, where thousands of Syrians have become desperate to end the conflict. Throwing their hopes on those who only seek to usher in a new tyranny, blinded by a mindset that has been brought up on Arab supremacy, many side with jihadist factions and any forces that depart from their mindset, such as Rojava forces. It is this mindset that Rojava forces are seeking to change.
-Changing minds, but not allies:
Helping to establish a ‘Raqqa Civilian Council’ (RCC) to takeover after SDF have liberated the city of Raqqa, SDF are seeking to change the mindset that has long plagued Syria. Appointing Layla Mohammed—a feminist and Raqqa local—to co-head the Council, Rojava forces sought to make a statement (36). By empowering women and putting them in places of authority, Rojava forces seek to change the gender dynamics and slowly erode the religious traditionalism that had sought to subjugate women as second-class citizens—A stark contrast to the jihadists’ vision.
Around the same time of Layla Mohammed’s appointment and RCC’s formation, Turkey was holding its referendum. April 16th saw Turks flock to voting booths, guarded at all times by Turkish soldiers and often surrounded by ‘Evet’ supporters, who kept close eyes on what way locals were voting. Intimidation was not the only thing awaiting potential ‘hayir’ [no] voters, but also fraudulent votes and a clear manipulation of votes to favour Evet side. Many counters of the results were filmed accepting fraudulent Evet votes—a clear violation of the voting process, but not to be a surprise, given Erdogan’s tactics (37).
However, what was clear to the world was that in Turkey there was still a resistance to autocratic rule. A majority of Kurdish regions in Turkey voted ‘Hayir’ and many of the major cities, such as Ankara and Istanbul, voted Hayir too. This showed that, even though the Turkish referendum was a victory for Erdogan, with 51.8% Evet votes in his favour, the coming darkness would have its future cracks of light from those areas (38, 39). With new power secured, President Erdogan could now set his sights on Rojava.
Now Turkey looks to be amassing troops north of the Tell Abyad border, for what looks to be a likely point of a possible future offensive by TSK into Rojava. Erdogan did say that Turkey would launch future military operations, this time without using the pretext of fighting ISIS, as it did for Euphrates Shield. However, Ankara’s methods of doing this are varied, but what is clear is that Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani’s ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party’ (KDP), whose party co-administrates the ‘Kurdish Regional Government’ (KRG), would play a part.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s KDP acts as a Turkish organisation that heads a ‘quasi-Turkish protectorate’, as KDP has allowed Ankara’s interests to dictate KRG’s foreign policy. This is no more evident in KDP’s actions towards the PKK in Sinjar and to the Yazidis of ‘Sinjar Resistance Units’ (YBŞ). In August of 2014, when ISIS militants were edging their way towards Sinjar, thousands of Yazidis became victim to a massacre that would see Yazidi women enslaved, children butchered and men killed (40). Many of Yazidis had been disarmed in prior days by KDP forces, which retreated when ISIS militants broke through—leaving thousands defenceless (41).
A corridor was opened just in time by the YPG with the help of the PKK and YBŞ to create a path between Sinjar Mountains and Rojava territory. This corridor served to save thousands of Yazidis from being butchered further, showing that the Rojava forces and PKK wanted to aid those battling oppression (42). However, KDP pushed Ankara’s line and cracked down harder in following years against PKK, as well as the YBŞ. Pushing Rojava Peshmerga into Sinjar in March 2017 to try oust YBS, KDP intended to push any trace of PKK from Iraq. These clashes continued between KDP forces and YBŞ near Sinjar Mountains, inevitably escalating with Turkish airstrikes on April 25th (43).
-Bombs over Rojava:
Turkish jets flew high across Rojava and the Sinjar mountains, dropping bombs on YPG headquarters in Cizere and YBŞ’ military bases in Sinjar. Dozens killed, including many civilians and even KDP Peshmerga as well, showed that Ankara’s eyes were still firmly set on the Kurds (44). Launching further attacks, TSK clashed with YPG in the Afrin and Cizere cantons—battling at Darbasiyah. During this time, US commanders visited the site of the bombings in Sinjar a day later, despite the anger of both Turkey and FSA supporters (45).
Rojava supporters began to campaign for a ‘no fly zone’ over Northern Syria, shortly after the airstrikes, to prevent further Turkish aggression. In the interim, US State department, Iraq and Syrian governments denounced Turkey’s airstrikes—US even going so far as to warn Turkey to not take any further action against YPG. However, Ankara ignored Pentagon’s demands and continued to mortar YPG positions, as well as attempt to push armour into Rojava (46). This defiance prompted CENTCOM to authorise US Special forces to come to the aid of YPG in Darbasiyah.
Wedging itself firmly between TSK and YPG, US armed vehicles—with raised American flags—drove with YPG to the border and set up positions to deter Turkish aggression. US flexed its muscle and Russia found itself desiring to do the same, as Russia followed soon after with troops being sent to Afrin canton to deter aggression too (47, 48). It was a Manbij situation all over again, as Turkey again found itself confronted by both US and Russia. Creating, in effect, a ‘buffer zone’ along the northern Syria border, US stands now in Ankara’s way–again.
Charles Lister and other anti-YPG analysts took this opportunity to beat Ankara’s drum at Congress and on social media, outlying desperately the need for US to reconsider its relations with the YPG. Like Roy Gutman before in February, Lister and friends spared no time in pointing out YPG’s connection to the PKK—a ‘terrorist organisation’ (49). Julian Röpcke, another ME analyst, even went so far as to decry the USSOF that attended the funeral of killed YPG fighters in Qamshilo. Highlighting yet again, how far the anti-YPG brigade will go in their hatred of Rojava forces and their affirmation of Turkey’s narrative (50).
-A New Dawn for Syria:
Now that Ankara is once again forced to rethink its strategy in Northern Syria, SDF forces are on the verge of liberating Tabqa from ISIS. Well I write this, most of Tabqa’s old districts have been liberated and clashes now go on in the last remaining streets of the city. ISIS is done in Tabqa that is for sure. There seems to be a determination with the SDF that has tickled the fancy of the US, as Trump administration looks to be aligning more firmly on the side of it in the fight against ISIS than Ankara (51, 52). Ankara is starting to read the warning signs and has become increasingly tenser with the US.
Turning its eyes to its rebel partners, Ankara, Damascus and Tehran did manage to come to agreement on future ‘safe zones’ for refugees and civilians in the Syrian conflict to return (53). Whether or not these safe zones will work is yet to be seen; however, I am sceptical that such agreements will last unless maintained through force. It is speculated that TSK might intervene to prevent these safe zones from regressing back into conflict zones, and to stop further escalation of tensions between rebel groups, such as HTS and Sham Legion.
A new dawn breaks for Syria, as the forces of totalitarianism fight for survival in an ever increasingly difficult situation. Their leader gone and their units on the back foot, under siege by those who had suffered the most at their hands, ISIS militants now fight for what is left of a broken caliphate. With the strength of thousands that have perished in the most grotesque of manner behind them and with the cries of thousands in captivity still, female and male fighters—in equilibrium—of the Syrian Democratic Forces march onward. Rojava’s eyes are on Raqqa and its people now. Liberation is on the horizon.
Written By Anthony Avice Du Buisson