This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. EDT, Oct. 10, 2019.
GAZIANTEP, Turkey—What began with bluster at 10:37 Wednesday night following the Turkish defense ministry’s announcement of a ground incursion into Syria quickly failed to materialize.
Turkey’s aerial bombardment had begun earlier in the afternoon and included a wave of large scale assaults on key border cities such as Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain, Qamishli, and the border crossing at Darbasia, pushing a wave of people to flee the area.
But the large convoys of Turkish armored vehicles and the large Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy force put together for the assault remained throughout the night on the Turkish side of the border.
Pro-Turkish accounts on social media widely circulated a video of Turkish military vehicles allegedly entering the Syrian city to shouts of “Bismillah! Allahu Akbar!” from cheering locals. The thick accents of the supporters made it clear however that the video was not shot in Tal Abyad, but rather in the adjacent Turkish town of Akçakale across the border.
After three days of anticipation and a sense in Turkey that it finally would overcome its inability to deal with the Kurdish canton to its south, by early Thursday morning Ankara’s plans to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) statelet in Syria appeared frustrated yet again. Then, as The Daily Beast went to press late Thursday morning the joint Turkish-FSA ground assault on the area surrounding Tal Abyad was underway, according to numerous sources on both the Turkish and SDF side.
Military and media sources from both the SDF and Turkish side confirmed that a joint Turkish-FSA ground assault aimed at cutting off the key border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. By late afternoon, Turkish and FSA forces had taken over a string of villages on the both the eastern and western flanks of Tal Abyad, including Tal Findr, al-Yabsa, Tal Akhdar, B’ir Ashaq and Qsas, in preparation to eventually surround and besiege the city, one of the most important commercial border crossings in northern Syria.
A local witness to the clashes who fled his hometown in the area acknowledged that some schools and civilian facilities were targeted during the strike, “however this was due to the presence of SDF fighters who took refuge in some of these facilities as cover against the Turkish armed forces”, he said.
In many areas where previous clashes had taken place, such as the border crossings at al-Malikia and Darbasia, locals reported a sharp reduction in SDF troop presence than the previous day. Other reports suggested that, despite these development, a new wave of US troops withdrew from Syria into Iraq, leaving the SDF to fend off the Turkish assault on their own.
International and U.S. congressional opposition to the Turkish assault was largely to thank for stalling of the offensive, at least temporarily, as it reined in the free hand Turkey thought it would enjoy in northern Syria. President Erdogan was forced to think twice about a full-on invasion. Early condemnation of the assault from European countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany and others undoubtedly sent a shock through Turkey’s leadership, which relies on the European Union as its biggest source of imports, exports and foreign direct investment.
Finland, just three weeks after approving the export of drones to Turkey, went so far as to announce it would cease all arms shipments to Ankara as part of a commitment to support a joint EU condemnation of Turkey’s assault on the area.
Turkey, well into a years long recession, with a depreciating currency, cannot afford similar measures from other European nations.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and normally an ardent supporter Donald Trump, has clashed repeatedly with the president over his eagerness to withdraw from Syria. Graham appeared alongside Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen on Wednesday to announce a bi-partisan plan to impose new sanctions against Turkey should it’s assault on the SDF continue.
The confusion sowed by President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and the divisions created within the U.S. establishment and America’s own allies appears to have trickled down to the Syrian battlefield, leaving local commanders on the ground torn.
“The position of European governments and the U.S. Congress is unfortunate, however to be expected, as they’ve always opposed our position towards the PKK,” said Mustafa al-Sayjeri, chairman of the political office of Liwa al-Mu’atasim, one of the largest FSA factions taking part in the campaign and closely allied to Ankara. Turkey and its allies make essentially no distinction between the banned Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish elements that dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces.
“However keep in mind, we got a green light from Trump to carry out this invasion,” said al-Sayjeri. “Both Turkey and the FSA respect U.S. troops serving on the ground, and our goal is not to engage or clash with them at all.”
Al-Sayjeri himself has worked previously with the United States as a member of various FSA groups that received U.S. funding to combat the so-called Islamic State from 2014 to 2016.
As the Turkish assault got underway late Thursday evening, Turkish President Erdogan himself grew more defiant in the face of international pressure, saying to a gathering of Turkey’s Parliament in Ankara, “if you [oppose] our campaign, our response is simple: we’ll release 3.6m Syrian refugees [across our borders into Europe]”, to widespread applause in parliament.
Despite the efforts of the international community and the U.S. Congress to restrain Turkey, deep bitterness remained among the embattled Kurdish commanders, many of whom were frankly bewildered after years fighting and dying on the ground with U.S. support in the battles against ISIS.
“We don’t speak to American traitors,” said one high-ranking SDF commander when approached by The Daily Beast. “We have nothing to say.”
The dilemma faced by the United States in attempting to appease both the Kurdish dominated SDF and Turkey, along with its FSA allies such as al-Sayjeri, has proven to be an impossible balancing act inevitably doomed to collapse.
"The SDF was always a short-term expedient that always would have a longer term cost, sooner or later," according to Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who initially helped coordinate the State Department's liaison with Syrian rebel groups. "Later is here and the bill is coming due."
Although American forces didn’t provide assistance to the SDF fending off Turkish aerial bombardment, U.S. troops did take steps to ward off pro-Assad forces advancing farther southwest near the city of Manbij, an SDF enclave west of the Euphrates that has been a source of U.S.-Turkish negotiations for nearly a year and a half.
On the eve of the assault, rumors swirled that Russian forces were preparing to launch an assault on the city of Tabqa near Manbij and the southernmost SDF controlled region. According to activists, the mobilization was real, and took place on the outskirts of the Manbij countryside:
“Regime forces sent reinforcements and mobilized along the borders of Manbij, however didn’t make any effort to enter SDF territory,” claimed Abd al-Karim Abd al-Saleh, a member of the pro-Syrian opposition Manbij Revolutionary Council (MRC) in exile. “As usual, they relied on Iranian backed militias, in this case the al-Baqir Brigades,” he said referring to a tribal militia from eastern Deir Ezzor province known for having converted en masse from Sunni to Shi’a Islam.
Social media accounts and local activists claimed U.S. troops still in the area carried out patrols along the demarcation line between the SDF and regime territory to ward off the advance.
The Syrian regime and some Russian forces already maintain a presence in a string of villages in the far west extremities of the Manbij pocket, while pro-regime political and tribal figures have long operated openly in the area under SDF protection. The regime has long eyed Manbij as one of the first territories it would seek to annex in the event of an SDF collapse.
Despite the SDF’s ability to hold off both Turkish and Assad forces for one day, as the SDF sent reinforcements to the border, ISIS members managed to take advantage of the vacuum in Raqqa city, the former Islamic State capital, and elsewhere to launch brazen attacks and orchestrate a prison break.
The latter development appears to have pushed the Trump administration to transfer custody of two high profile ISIS foreign fighters out of the country in order to avoid their potential escape.
Early Wednesday morning, an SDF spokesman claimed that 50 ISIS fighters besieged and attempted to take over a security headquarters in Raqqa city in what some interpreted as the group's first attempt to re-assert territorial control since it's “final” defeat at the town of Baghuz. The assault included anywhere from three to six suicide bombings. Local sources interviewed by The Daily Beast claimed the clashes lasted more than an hour. Elsewhere, deep in the desert in territory controlled by the regime, ISIS reportedly killed 17 people belonging to a pro-Assad militia.
Mustafa Bali, an SDF Spokesman, told The Daily Beast that SDF forces also clashed with ISIS cells in the countryside south of Tal Rifa’at for nearly two hours Thursday morning in the leadup to the Turkish assault. “The situation in Raqqa was already very dangerous, as the number of ISIS fighters that attacked al-Basel was very large,” he said. “The clashes this morning also don’t bode well, especially near Ras al-Ain.”
The status of prisons where ISIS prisoners were held created the most cause for concern. Wednesday evening, reports surfaced that ISIS women being held at the al-Hol facility in Hasakah province managed to burn down their own tents to facilitate an escape.
According to Bali, the situation is under control, but his statements remained vague, “the situation at al-Hol has been very tense and dangerous, however we were able to secure to situation, at the camp.” As early as Oct. 5, 2019, videos of female ISIS members violently clashing with guards circulated on social media.
Bali added that during the Turkish assault, planes allegedly struck another facility known as al-Chirkin holding high value ISIS suspects. It’s unclear as of yet whether or not fighters at the second facility were able to escape, or even the extent of the damage at the facility.
Such developments reinforce the delicate nature of the situation and the potential for a renewed outbreak of terror activity in the event of a protracted conflict involving Turkey, the SDF, the Assad regime and it’s allies, a fact the SDF has made sure to play up and emphasize in it’s messaging.
Future prospects for the campaign suggest that the joint Turkish-FSA force will likely seek to extend as far as Ain Aissa, the deepest into SDF territory the former have struck throughout the campaign. As early as Wednesday, several Turkish air assaults destroyed facilities near the town of Ain Aissa, including the al-Rami oil field near the town of al-Hawashan in addition to the site of a now abandoned US military base that also served as an SDF intelligence center, killing 7 and wounding 16. Since then, attacks have continued, with Turkish airforce striking the 93rd Brigade military base south of the city.
In recent days, debate over the extent and depth of the planned Turkish assault has continued, mostly due to questions over Turkey’s own capacity to occupy and administer territory deep into the Syrian interior in light of the difficulty it’s already faced doing so in other territories in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. Ain Aissa, located 45 kilometers south of the Turkish border, is located deeper in Syrian territory than the agreed upon depth of any safe zone previously discussed by the US and Turkey, which US negotiators hoped would not exceed 30 kilometers.
Some Turkish and FSA sources have claimed they will also soon seek to incorporate Manbij into their area of operations, however with the exception of a few brief skirmishes with SDF forces in that area, this are has yet to see the same level of Turkish penetration. However the attacks on Ain Aissa give a preliminary sense as to how far the Turkish military intends to go.
Michael Weiss also contributed to this report.