PARIS — Responding to official Turkish statements regarding an upcoming military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria earlier this month, SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi cautioned on social media that any escalation poses a “high risk [to] northern Syria” and would “negatively affect our campaign” against the Islamic State (IS).
On May 23, an SDF statement called Ankara’s moves “an attempt to undermine stability” and “revitalize IS remnants.”
In May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a military operation in northern Syria to expand a 30km “safe zone” along the Syrian border, in what would be the fourth cross-border operation since 2016.
The Syrian Democratic Council (MSD), the political arm of the SDF, accused Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on May 26 of aiming to “establish a jihadist emirate that includes the extremists and their leaders.” The 30km zone Turkey seeks to create includes areas where prisons and camps holding IS members and their families are located, the MSD said.
The spokesperson for the SDF-affiliated Northern Democratic Brigade, Mahmoud Habib, accused Ankara of trying to “scatter our forces on two dangerous fronts: first, against its anticipated operation, and the other against IS,” telling Syria Direct that the operation would require “bringing more forces to support the fronts, at the expense of securing IS prisons” where more than 12,000 fighters are held.
Although weeks have passed since Ankara first stated its intention to launch a military operation along its southern border, prompting denunciations and warnings by the SDF, an operation has yet to begin. There is also no clear change in IS activity in northeastern Syria.
But in the event of a Turkish operation, IS could take advantage of Ankara and the SDF’s preoccupation with it to increase activity or attack prisons where its members are held. On the other hand, the SDF could also use the threat of IS to pressure the United States-led anti-IS coalition to stop Turkey’s operation, or limit its impact.
The IS card
SDF warnings about a return of IS in northeastern Syria in the event of a Turkish operation on the fact that its cells are still active in areas of SDF control. More than three years after the SDF, with the support of the US-led international coalition, announced the defeat of IS, SDF control over some remote areas in the northeast wanes in favor of IS when the sun sets.
The Ghweiran prison attack in January, in which IS tried to take control of the SDF-controlled facility in Hasakah city and break detainees out, illustrates the threat posed by the group and the possibility of an increase in its activities.
“The more Syria is chopped up into small parts and the weaker the main actors get, the more difficult it will be to prevent groups like the Islamic State from extending their influence,” Aron Lund, a researcher at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI) and a fellow at the US-based Century Foundation, told Syria Direct.
For his part, al-Farouq Abu Bakr, a member of the leadership council of Hayat Thaeroon for Liberation, a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) military formation which would participate in an upcoming Turkish operation, accused the SDF of using IS as a “pretext to survive and ensure that international support continues to reach it to implement its separatist project.”
In Abu Bakr’s view, the SDF aims to “frighten the international community, [saying] that our military operation will undermine its counterterrorism efforts,” he told Syria Direct. “IS has faded away irreversibly, regardless of some media movements it carries out in the Syrian desert.”
The “Free Syrian Army and the SNA were the first to fight IS in the Euphrates Shield battle in northern Aleppo,” Abu Bakr said, accusing the SDF of standing “with IS in that battle.”
Euphrates Shield, in 2016, was Turkey’s first major cross-border operation in northern Syria. In the operation, Turkish and Syrian opposition forces captured Jarablus and al-Bab from IS, thereby also preventing efforts by the SDF to connect their territory farther east with then-SDF-held Afrin. During the operation, the SDF clashed with Turkish-backed forces multiple times.
For his part, SDF Northern Democratic Brigade spokesperson Habib said “there is a cooperative aspect between IS and Turkey,” citing the Ghweiran prison attack and claiming “we have confirmed this.”
Impact of Turkey’s operation on ‘an IS comeback’
Habib warned that any “Turkish attack would weaken security control, and could cause resistance inside the prisons, or prison breaks.” With the SDF preoccupied with a new confrontation with Turkey, “operations to pursue and catch any IS cell east of the Euphrates will weaken,” he said.
Military conditions could “reduce pressure on the Islamic State’s remaining networks, facilitating their reorganization,” researcher Lund said, though fighting between the SDF and Turkey “won’t necessarily result in any immediate consequences.” However, SDF threats of being forced to withdraw forces from the perimeter of detention facilities to repel Turkey’s operation is likely “partly propaganda,” he said.
Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups, said the impact of Turkey’s operation on IS activity depends on “the scale and extent of Ankara’s expansion in its operation, and how the SDF deals with it.” In any event, “the SDF will be depleted,” he said.
Abu Haniya cited the Ghweiran prison attack, saying that IS launched an attack with a group of between 13 and 30 fighters—according to its statement—and the SDF was not able to “repel the operation, except for after US ground and air intervention.” The attack “revealed the truth of the SDF, despite its large number of forces—120,000,” he said. The results of Turkey’s operation are “decided, and it has its costs.”
SNA commander Abu Bakr thought it unlikely that Turkey’s operation would impact SDF-controlled areas, saying “IS only has influence in some areas of the desert.” He suggested any activity against the SDF outside these areas could be “fabricated, to serve SDF interests.”
Locations most vulnerable to IS
According to Erdoğan’s statements, Ankara’s military operation targets the SDF-held cities of Tal Rifaat and Manbij in the Aleppo countryside. But SNA movements and the reported repositioning of US and Russian forces in the region appear to indicate that other areas may be in Turkey’s crosshairs.
Turkey can rely on SNA factions to maintain control over Tal Rifaat and Manbij, which “are not necessarily where IS would benefit,” according to Lund. But the group could “benefit in other areas,” as a weakened SDF or heightened level of conflict “may produce tensions as far away as in Deir e-Zor and help take pressure of IS networks there.”
But “the real strength of the Islamic State in Syria is uncertain,” Lund said. “The group’s activities in Iraq—its original home turf, where most of its leaders are from—have clearly declined and become confined to increasingly rural and peripheral regions. We see something similar in Syria, but there, the uncertainties are much greater.”
Northern Democratic Brigade spokesperson Habib said IS threatens all parts of northern and eastern Syria, “from city centers, towns and international roads, to prisons and camps.” This means “the area is in real danger,” he said, and “IS prisons are the most likely targets for attacks.”
IS could also be “reconstituting active cells in places far from intelligence and military oversight, with the task of taking control of some remote areas,” Habib said.
“IS does not take action arbitrarily,” Abu Haniya said. “All its movements—Soldiers’ Harvest [a year-long campaign by IS against Iraqi security forces from June 2013-June 2014] or others—are planned.” While “it may exploit some events, it adheres to previously drawn plans.”
As Abu Haniya sees it, “IS will not launch a major attack, but rather some experimental attacks, as happened in Ghweiran.” It may “take advantage of the chaos to get its fighters out of prison, and make use of tens of thousands of women and children who have grown up in the prisons and camps.”
Regardless of its investment in any immediate event, IS is proceeding “according to a larger plan, and it has a patient and gradual strategy that deals with changes,” Abu Haniya said. The group’s strategic plan “consists of preserving the structure at present, and then expanding depending on changing geopolitical conflicts between regional countries.”
IS “is betting on the Americans withdrawing from Syria in the end,” as happened in Iraq, as no more than a year went by before “IS took control of areas of Iraq and Syria,” Abu Haniya explained. “The general IS policy is to position itself between disputes and competition between countries.”
Given regional and international developments such as “intensifying competition between the US and China and US interest directed towards the South China Sea and Asia, while Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine,” Abu Haniya said, a US “withdrawal from northeastern Syria, which could happen if Turkey enters the region, would leave everything up in the air.” In that case, “IS would reorganize itself, and the region would reignite with all forces, including IS, which is one of the actors and has experience and precise knowledge of the region.”
“Some argue that the group may be hiding some of its activity by not assuming responsibility for all attacks,” Lund said, in order to “conceal a quiet rebuilding of networks and in the hope that U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces would decrease.” Weakening the SDF and Internal Security Forces (Asayish), alongside increased chaos overall, will in the long run “create more space for the Islamic State to operate in,” he said.
“Should Turkey and its Syrian allies launch such an operation, they, the Americans and the SDF, the Syrian government and Russia, and other parties interested in preventing an IS resurgence should be aware of the long-term risks and prepare for them,” he added.
Abu Haniya concluded by saying that if IS attacks on SDF prisons and camps, which hold around 12,000 fighters and 70,000 women and children, respectively, are successful, “it would mean an IS comeback, that it will be resurrected.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.