YPG fighters shown in this image from January 24, 2018, have vowed to fight a guerrilla-style struggle against Turkish-backed forces in Afrin Canton. File photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
A year after the Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) lost their westernmost canton of Afrin Canton to an unprovoked invasion by Turkey and its Syrian militiamen proxies the group still maintains a small presence in the neighbouring Shahba Canton. From there they have conducted
a low-level insurgency campaign against the occupiers.
In February 2016 the Afrin YPG captured the city of Tal Rifaat and the nearby Menagh airbase from the Islamic Front group and shortly thereafter established the Shahba Canton. Three years later Shahba is now the westernmost point in Syria in which the YPG has a presence as a result of losing nearby Afrin. Tel Rifaat is situated approximately 20 kilometres southeast of Afrin.
Turkey foiled the YPG's aim of linking isolated Afrin with its primary regions east of the Euphrates River by launching Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. After the YPG captured the city of Manbij from the Islamic State (ISIS) earlier that month Ankara sent forces into northwest Syria, capturing the border towns. They advanced approximately 30 kilometres deep into northwest Syria to capture the city of al-Bab from ISIS.
The Turkish military and its proxies have garrisoned this area ever since, effectively blocking any feasible possibility of far-flung Afrin being linked up with the rest of the cantons, which would have made Syrian Kurdistan contiguous extending along all of Syria's border with Turkey.
In January 2018, Turkey outright invaded Afrin in Operation Olive Branch. The YPG defences in Afrin city fell on March 18, when the YPG opted not to wage a costly urban guerrilla warfare campaign. Turkey has occupied the region ever since, overseeing the altering of the region's Kurdish-majority demographics in a process which could well amount to wanton ethnic cleansing.
According to Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, Russia's closure of Afrin's airspace to Turkish airpower between March 18-24 allowed several YPG fighters to evacuate from Afrin to Tel Rifaat without being bombed by Turkish jets. They have remained there ever since.
After Afrin fell Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested that his forces would move on to attack the YPG in Tel Rifaat. His government briefly entered into talks with Russia, which had Military Police forces in the area. Unlike the previous January, when Russia withdrew its MP troops from Afrin and in doing so essentially gave Turkey a green light to invade, Moscow retained its MP presence this time around.
In April, Turkey said that if Russia could guarantee the YPG had no presence in Tel Rifaat it would not need to attack. Talks over the matter never progressed and the group retains an unknown number of fighters there. Also, in the meantime, the Syrian military reestablished a presence in the area for the first time in years.
Shahba hosts more than 100,000 displaced persons from Afrin. Humanitarian conditions are reportedly quite dire. Kurds there fear returning to their homes in Afrin due to abuses carried out against them by Turkey's proxies there. Arguably the most vulnerable civilians sheltering in Shahba are the Yezidis
from Afrin who fear falling victim to the Turkish-backed Islamists occupying their homeland.
The YPG remnants in Shahba have not stood idly by. They have launched hit-and-run attacks against their enemies in the neighbouring Afrin and the Euphrates Shield zone in recent months. Shahba is located a mere 6 km south of the border town of Azaz in the Euphrates Shield zone.
On December 13, a YPG attack — reportedly carried out from Tel Rifaat — killed
a Turkish soldier in Afrin. Ankara has sought to deter such YPG attacks by using its artillery. From January 23-25, it shelled several villages in Tel Rifaat. It is unclear if those bombardments actually killed any YPG fighters.
Jane's 360 defence journal reported
the Turkish occupation zones in Syria face an ongoing threat from the Kurdish resistance. It highlighted an incident on February 12 when a Kurdish vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) killed three police officers manning a security checkpoint in the border town of Al-Rai.
The Syrian military presence in Shahba has no motive in dissuading or preventing the YPG from using Shahba as a launch pad for such attacks.
Damascus vocally opposes Turkey's presence in Syria. During the Afrin invasion, pro-regime Popular Forces paramilitaries were dispatched to the Kurdish enclave in a failed bid to halt the invaders. Early in the invasion, Russia asked the Kurds to give control of Afrin to Damascus in order to prevent the Turkish attack, something they refused to do.
If Turkey did decide to launch a ground operation into Shahba today the YPG could handover its positions to the Syrian military forces already in the region, a move which could deter Ankara and its allies. While such a move could also limit the YPG's ability to continue using Shahba as a launch pad for future attacks it would nevertheless help safeguard the camps and their beleaguered residents.
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that following the war against the Islamic State in eastern Syria they will prioritise the liberation of Afrin. If they try and make a serious effort at doing so, soon the Shahba Canton could very well play an important role as a staging ground.