As bombs fall, northern Syria braces for a potential Turkish invasion

Ishak, a Syrian shopkeeper living near the Turkish border, watched airstrikes in the distance as he stood on the roof of his house last week.

They landed so close to his village that he could see the explosions.

“We can’t describe our feelings, this fear,” said Ishak, who asked that his full name not be used to protect his safety. “You don’t know where to go. We don’t know what is being targeted, or how to avoid it.”

Several districts in northern Syria have faced bombardment in recent weeks as the Turkish military targets what it describes as terrorist enclaves belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK. Turkish officials describe the attacks as retaliation for a deadly bombing in a busy Istanbul shopping district on Nov. 13, which claimed six lives, and say the country is preparing a ground invasion to follow.

But human rights groups warn that new attacks could trigger a fresh exodus of refugees in northern Syria and worsen an already dire humanitarian crisis. Complicating matters, two of the three areas marked as potential avenues for a Turkish offensive are currently controlled by Kurdish allies of the United States.

In Ishak’s village in northern Syria, local schoolchildren, he said, have been taken out of school — though some still attend sporadically to try to finish the curriculum for the term. Mosques and churches are empty, but most families stay home, he added.

While Turkish military sources say their bombs have destroyed shelters, tunnels and ammunition depots, local media also show the destruction of grain silos, a power station and a hospital undergoing renovations. An attack near the Suweida power plant on Nov. 23 led to power cuts and concerns of water shortages in the town of Derek, a statement by the Northeast Syria NGO Forum reads.

“When you target the infrastructure, you target the stability of an area,” Ishak said. “It’s all a pretext not to let us live in peace and freedom like other human beings in the world.”

As a member of the area’s Syriac Assyrian minority, Ishak said that he fears for his life if his village is attacked by Turkish-backed Syrian militias in a new ground invasion. This would be the fourth Turkish-led military operation to seize land from the politically fractured border areas of northern Syria.

In a lengthy sit-down interview with Al Jazeera on Sunday, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin laid out his country’s justification for the attacks, saying that investigators had clearly linked the Istanbul bombing on Nov. 13 to affiliates of the PKK. The PKK has denied involvement.

“Of course, we had to respond,” Kalin said in the interview. “For us, any and all PKK, PYD, YPG posts, establishments, military points are legitimate targets for us. … They are legitimate targets because they are terrorist organizations, and we will go after them to protect our border.”

While the United States and Turkey both see the PKK as a terrorist organization that has waged a guerilla war in Turkey’s southeast since the 1980s, their views of other Kurdish militant groups in the region differ.

Since 2016, the US has backed an umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab and other militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, to fight ISIS. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) is led by commanders from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be an affiliate of the PKK. The US disagrees.

Gregory Waters, a Syria analyst for the Crisis Group, said that reality lies somewhere in the middle.

“When you look at Turkish drone strikes in northeast Syria, many of those strikes are hitting PKK commanders,” Waters said. “Whether they are still actively in the central PKK or they have in past years moved on to roles in the SDF or YPG, there’s plenty of evidence showing that many were, for decades, senior members of the PKK, who have been wanted by Turkey for decades.”

The real question for Turkey, Waters said, is whether these missile strikes are achieving what its leaders want to accomplish: a safer country.

“Absent any peace process or diplomatic initiative, these sorts of [attacks] just constantly hitting the PKK and the PKK hitting Turkey back, it gets stuck in this cycle,” Waters said.

About 900 US troops are still deployed in Syria — many of them sharing bases with the SDF. In the early days of the Turkish air assault, one missile landed within 150 yards of US troops, the Pentagon confirmed.

“American policy in Syria is coming to a dead end,” said Salim Çevik, an expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). “ISIS is no longer considered a strategic threat, and Americans are less committed to their alliance with the Kurds. But leaving them to their fate and abandoning them also undermines American credibility.”

Human rights groups have called on the US and other countries to intervene in Syria, warning that new fighting could destabilize even more people in a country where almost 7 million people are already internally displaced.

“The US has so many different things it can do to disincentive an invasion. To put pressure on [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, to make the price too high to invade northeast Syria,” said Nadine Maenza, president of the Washington-based International Religious Freedom Secretariat.

In 2018, the Turkish military and a coalition of Turkish-backed Syrian forces seized the Syrian city of Afrin. Human rights observers, including Amnesty International, documented widespread abuses against civilians, including indiscriminate bombings, abductions and the killing of a prominent Kurdish politician.

“Our fear is that if Turkey invades, that will happen again,” Maenza said.

Bassam al-Ahmad, the executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, is originally from the northern Syrian border city of Qamishli. Ahmad, now living in France, said he is in daily contact with family members in northern Syria who have packed their bags and are ready to flee if necessary.

He said that he is horrified by Turkish allegations that the region is a hotbed for the PKK, and fears that it will lead to violence against civilians.

“In speeches, many times they don’t distinguish, or they mix between the fighters and the people,” Ahmad said. “The way they speak about this area they always use terms of genocide. Saying that we’ll clean, saying that we’ll kill. We’ll destroy.”

Ahmad said that he is alarmed by suggestions that the Turkish campaign is timed to stir up popular support for Erdoğan ahead of the country’s elections in June.

“My answer is that this is worse,” he said. “It means you have internal issues and problems, and killing the Kurds is a bridge to power.”   

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