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Turkey hunts SDF forces in ‘indirect war’ ahead of anticipated military operation

Recent months have seen a marked escalation in Turkish strikes against the SDF and allied groups. Syria Direct tracked the killing of 24 military personnel—commanders and personnel—from July 1 to August 20. 

PARIS — In tandem with Turkey’s ongoing threats to launch a military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s northeast, Ankara is increasingly conducting drone and rocket artillery strikes against SDF commanders and personnel. 

Starting in May, Turkey began expanding the scope and pace of its operations targeting SDF personnel and affiliates, which notably increased over the past two months to a near daily rate, figures compiled by Syria Direct show. Some 24 military personnel—including SDF commanders and fighters, as well as members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and others—were killed from the beginning of July until August 20. The scale and pace of the killings indicate that Ankara has begun an “indirect war,” military and security sources from the SDF told Syria Direct

Turkish strikes claimed civilian lives during this period as well. Syrians for Truth and Justice documented the killing of 34 individuals in northeastern Syria from the beginning of July to August 26, including 13 civilians. Eighteen additional civilians were injured. 

Amid this escalation, a delegation from the United States (US)-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition, which supports and works with the SDF, visited the city of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) on August 23 to discuss regional de-escalation with SDF military leadership. The meeting took place days after Ankara bombed military targets near the city. 

On August 16, a Turkish warplane targeted a joint military position held by Syrian regime forces and the SDF in the village of Jarqli, in the Kobani countryside near the Turkish border. The attack killed and injured a total of 19 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). 

Three days later, a public market in al-Bab city, located in the northern Aleppo countryside controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), was struck by rocket fire, killing 14 people, including 5 children, and injuring 30 others. Some Syrian organizations have accused the SDF of responsibility for the massacre, which it denies. 

Restricting and sidelining leadership

The same day that Turkey bombed a joint SDF and regime position near Kobani, Ankara announced the killing of Dijvar Silopi, also known as Muhsin Yaghan, in SDF-controlled Qamishli city in northeastern Syria. Silopi was an official in the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara accuses the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, of being an extension of the PKK in Syria. 

Silopi was accused of planning and executing “many terrorist operations that targeted Turkish security forces at the border between Turkey and Syria,” Turkey’s Anadolu Agency quoted an unnamed security source as saying. The agency said Silopi moved to Syria in 2020 “under instructions from the [PKK] organization’s leadership.” 

In a separate operation, Youssef Mahmoud Rabbani, a leader in the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), was killed on August 6 in the al-Sinaa district of Qamishli city after his car was hit by a Turkish drone strike. PJAK is an offshoot of the PKK founded by members of the PKK from Iranian Kurdistan. 

On July 30, Nusret Tebis, a PKK commander from Turkey, was killed in a Turkish intelligence operation in Hasakah province, Turkey announced. Ankara accuses Tebis of responsibility for the 2008 Istanbul bombings that killed 18 people. 

In recent strikes targeting SDF personnel and affiliates in Syria, Turkey often relies on drones that have proved effective in Libya and Azerbaijan as well. They are a “cheap weapon, compared to warplanes, and don’t put the pilots at risk,” defected Syrian general and military analyst Ahmed Hamada said. 

In Hamada’s reading, Ankara seeks through its recent operations to “carry out specific operations against PKK leaders, with the aim of paralyzing the organization’s capacity and separating the leadership from the body” of its forces.

Turkey’s strikes also achieve Ankara’s goals of “destroying SDF fortifications, targeting command and control centers and silencing the sources of fire [targeting the Turkish side],” Hamada added. 

A military source from the SDF, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to make statements to the media, said “the commanders targeted by Turkish bombings are not influential at the organizational, administrative or military levels of the SDF.” However, the strikes “hinder the movement of SDF leadership and forces, for fear of being targeted,” he said. As a result, “forces are not currently being moved unless accompanied by the allies, the Americans or the Russians, depending on the area,” he said.

Top SDF commanders “have special security arrangements, and usually don’t leave their headquarters at US bases unless it is necessary and they are accompanied by American patrols,” the SDF military source said. He said SDF forces are in a state of confusion and on alert because they are unable to deal with the drones, “except by well-known traditional military methods, such as secret bunkers or taking cover and leaving the targeted areas.” 

The SDF is attempting to intensify efforts “in monitoring the airspace and tracking aircraft flying over our areas,” he said, but “the drone carrying out the operations is difficult to monitor because it is advanced.” 

‘A kind of catharsis’

Turkey’s anticipated military operation against the SDF has been met with widespread international rejection, especially from the US and European countries, since it was first announced in May. Notably, the Syrian regime’s allies, Moscow and Tehran, have also rejected the operation. 

Following the Tehran summit in July that brought together Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Raisi emphasized that military measures would only aggravate the crisis in Syria. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said during a meeting with Erdoğan on July 19 that “any military action in Syria will harm the entire region.” 

Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said at a press conference on July 18, when asked about the Turkish operation, that Moscow opposes “any acts that violate the main principle” of a political settlement in Syria, out of “respect for the sovereignty of Syria.” 

But the military option is still on the table, Erdoğan told reporters after returning to Turkey from the Tehran summit. “The issue of a new operation in northern Syria will remain on agenda [sic] until our national security concerns are alleviated,” he said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on July 21 that his country “can’t keep our hands tied” in Syria, noting that Ankara has “never asked and we never ask for permission for our military operations.”

Over the past several years, Turkish forces have carried out three cross-border military operations in Syria with the participation of the Ankara-backed SNA. These were Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, to expel the Islamic State (IS) from northern Aleppo; Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, against the YPG in Afrin and its environs in northwestern Aleppo; and Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, against the SDF. 

Turkey’s targeting of SDF-controlled areas in northeastern Syria “has not stopped since the agreements were signed between Turkey, the US and Russia in 2019 [that stopped Operation Peace Spring],” said Mahmoud Habib, the spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Northern Democratic Brigade. But “it escalated since May, and continues,” he told Syria Direct

Habib accused Ankara of conducting “indiscriminate bombings targeting the [SDF’s] support base, causing economic and material damage to displace residents and increase their suffering.” 

On August 23, 121 Syrian organizations issued a statement condemning “repeated hostilities in northern Syria.” They called on the United Nations and the Security Council to “Establish a ceasefire across Syria, ensure that no party shall violate the ceasefire, and prevent any prospective military offensives in northern Syria that are likely to undermine stability in the region.”

As a result of international rejection of Turkey’s military operation, “Ankara is using artillery bombardment and drone strikes as a kind of catharsis for its support base,” Habib said. He called the strikes “bankrupt attempts by a state that is floundering in its foreign and domestic policies,” and accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of “using the blood of innocents to increase its chances in the upcoming presidential elections,” scheduled for June 2023. 

The SDF’s official spokesperson, Aram Hanna, saw the escalation of airstrikes as the result of “Turkey’ failure to get a green light from the international community to launch an occupationist campaign.” This has prompted it to “intensify its strikes, leading to dozens of injuries and martyrs, including military commanders making plans in the fight against terrorism on a daily basis,” he told Syria Direct.

But military analyst Hamada does not view Turkish airstrikes as an alternative to a ground offensive. He expects Turkey will not halt its military operations until it achieves its goals “of preventing the establishment of a separatist [Kurdish] entity, and ousting the SDF from the border area.” 

SDF response

On August 18, the SDF announced it conducted three operations at border positions near the Turkish cities of Urfa, Gaziantep and Mardin in response to Turkey’s escalation. The SDF pledged to continue “retaliation operations” within what it called “the legitimate right of response” if Ankara continues targeting its areas. 

Earlier this month, local pro-SDF media groups published a video showing a Turkish military base in the SNA-held region being targeted by the Afrin Liberation Forces, a Kurdish military group accused of belonging to the SDF, though it has not declared any affiliation. 

In an effort to protect its areas of influence from the anticipated Turkish offensive, the SDF announced an alliance with the Syrian regime in July. The agreement resulted in the establishment of joint military operation rooms between the two sides, as well as the entrance of regime forces to SDF-held areas to repel any future Turkish attack. 

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Speaking about the alliance between the SDF and Damascus, spokesperson Hanna said “the Syrian Democratic Forces are a national, defensive force made up of the people of northeastern Syria to protect themselves and their land, which they liberated from the terrorist [IS] organization. But that does not entitle us to obtain anti-aircraft and air defenses.” Accordingly, “we have taken defensive steps and measures to deter the advance of the occupation and mercenary forces, including reaching military understandings with the Damascus government,” he added.

As for its internal housekeeping, the SDF “verbally” told its forces to avoid traveling in large groups, to wear civilian clothing while traveling and to avoid traveling in four-wheel drive vehicles (pickups). The SDF issued these guidelines to avoid being monitored by Turkish aircraft as these vehicles are known to be used for military purposes by the SDF, Syrian newspaper Enab Baladi reported on August 9, citing an SDF source. 

The SDF also issued an internal circular banning its forces from using mobile phones of all kinds, whether modern or old, under penalty of fine or imprisonment, because of “the danger of these electronic devices in the military field, as the enemy uses them to identify targets,” according to the Enab Baladi report. Friday was exempted from this decision, provided that mobile phones are used only once. 

The Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), the civilian body running SDF-held areas, previously announced a state of emergency in early July because of Turkish “threats” to the area. 

Amid increased operations against SDF commanders and forces in recent months, the SDF launched an arrest campaign against those they described as “spies and agents.” On July 26, the SDF revealed the arrest of three “spies,” a man and two women, for providing intelligence to Ankara leading to the death of two SDF commanders in a Turkish raid against the military relations headquarters of the Tal Tamr Military Council in August 2021. 

On July 31, the SDF announced Operation Oath targeting “spies and agents” in nine areas under its control, resulting in the arrest of 36 individuals it said caused the death of 11 of its members. 

SDF spokesperson Hanna accused Ankara of trying to “create a state of chaos and insecurity” in SDF-controlled areas, in order to “undermine the efforts of our forces in the fight against terrorism, which Turkey has been a prominent supporter of.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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