Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and US soldiers patrol the Kurdish-held town of al-Darbasiyah in northeastern Syria bordering Turkey on November 4, 2018. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
Over the past fortnight, a series of important events transpired in northern Syria which could have significant ramifications for the future of that region.
In late October, Turkey began shelling the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates River, striking areas in the Kobane and Gire Spi (Tal Abyad) border regions.
This prompted the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to halt its important operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) in its remaining territories in towns such as Hajin in eastern Deir ez-Zor province. This followed a series of losses and setbacks for the SDF throughout the month of October in that offensive, in which the group has suffered hundreds of casualties since September.
As with its invasion of Syrian Kurdistan's (Rojava) isolated western enclave of Afrin early this year, Turkey's attack on the YPG resulted in the YPG diverting manpower and resources away from the SDF's fight against ISIS.
This diversion came as Iraq beefed up military forces on its nearby border with Deir ez-Zor to prevent ISIS incursions into the country. It also comes as ISIS in Iraq are launching more frequent attacks.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) reported that in October alone ISIS once again launched attacks using lethal vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and assassinated important village chiefs, mukhtars, in a clear bid to undermine the confidence of Iraqis in their country's security forces.
"Targeted assassinations against mokhtars and attacks on electricity infrastructure continued unabated," the KRSC tweeted.
YPG prioritizing Turkish threat over ISIS
Incidentally, the latest quarterly report to the United States Congress by the Lead Inspector General for the US-led anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve, published on November 5, described how Turkey's invasion of Afrin benefitted ISIS. When several YPG members left the ranks of the SDF to try and fight off that invasion ISIS used the "2-month pause in the fighting in northern Syria to recruit new members, gain resources, and conduct attacks."
ISIS will likely gain some more breathing room as a result of Turkey's latest attacks in a similar fashion if they persist.
Also, another indication that further instability could plague Rojava in the near future came this month when Arab tribes issued a statement expressing their desire to cease cooperating with the YPG in their areas.
On November 1, the United States and Turkey finally began joint patrols around the town of Manbij as part of the roadmap agreement the two made last June to end the standoff between Turkey and the YPG there.
Bizarrely this was then followed up a mere day later by separate US patrols east of the Euphrates to deter further Turkish attacks on the YPG there. Pentagon spokesman Rob Manning called them "assurance patrols" while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they were "unacceptable."
US patrols along the border were executed in a similar fashion to its initial patrols around Manbij in March 2017. At that time, and on numerous occasions since Erdogan threatened to follow up his initial Euphrates Shield incursion into Syria in August 2016 with an attack on Manbij to push the YPG out.
The United States then intervened directly, sending in Army Rangers with armoured vehicles to prevent any Turkish-backed rebels from skirmishing with the YPG.
The purpose of the Manbij Roadmap aimed to end this impasse. However, even with the commencement of these joint patrols Turkish troops are still not allowed into Manbij city nor have Ankara and Washington made any real headway in establishing a military council for Manbij to replace any YPG presence.
In the long-term Ankara will certainly not settle for anything less than a YPG withdrawal from that area. In the meantime, it seems satisfied with expanding its attacks on the YPG eastward of the Euphrates.
"We are resolved to turn our attention to the east of the Euphrates, from where Turkey is being threatened, rather than seeing our time wasted in Manbij," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently stated.
East of the Euphrates
On November 7, Turkey continued shelling villages around Kobane and Gire Spi in disregard of the US patrols.
On the same day, the US State Department's "Rewards for Justice" program put multi-million dollar bounties on the heads of three Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leaders.
While Ankara welcomed the gesture it also urged the US to do the same with the YPG, yet again arguing the two groups are indistinguishable. The US Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey affirmed that the US still distinguishes between the two.
It's unclear if the timing of the bounties was merely coincidental or if it is part of a strategy to dissuade Turkey from further attacks on the YPG. In other words, it could be Washington's way of signaling to Ankara that it continually can target the PKK on Qandil Mountain, or elsewhere, as much as it wants in return for ceasing from carrying out any more unprovoked cross-border attacks against the YPG.
In July 2015, Turkey finally permitted the US-led coalition usage of Incirlik Airbase for airstrikes against ISIS and joined that coalition. However, Ankara instead focused its military efforts on a ferocious campaign against the PKK in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast — secure in the knowledge the coalition would not seriously criticize its actions since they needed Incirlik. That campaign destroyed large swathes of Kurdish towns and cities in largely unprecedented urban battles.
The future of the two ongoing US patrols in northern Syria is unclear. Not unlike Manbij Gire Spi is an Arab-majority region. It is likely Turkey intends to launch a ground incursion in that area for this reason. Over the past week, it has reportedly deployed an estimated 1,200 of its Syrian militiamen proxies to the border.
Provided the United States continues patrols on the border any Turkish ground incursion is unlikely for now. Turkey's cross-border bombardments, on the other hand, may well continue, and could even potentially harm US personnel.
Whatever ultimately transpires the events of the last two weeks demonstrate yet again how volatile the situation is in that region.