In Northeast Syria, the fear for a new Turkish invasion grows every day

In northeast Syria, hundreds of thousands of refugees live in fear of a renewed invasion by Turkey after their northern neighbor advanced far into the border area last year. The pandemic is still preventing these IDPs from taking the dangerous route to Europe. But the question is: how much longer?

This article was originally published in German by Die Welt on 6 December 2020. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for Die Welt

A stinking, dark broth flows from a gray pipe into a huge puddle in which water bottles and torn bags of chips float. There is a smell of feces in the air. On the unpaved paths between the long rows of tents, one sinks into deep mud after yesterday’s heavy rain. “We don’t have enough to eat, there aren’t enough mattresses, the sewage system doesn’t work, electricity is scarce, and we don’t have any diesel for the stoves in winter.”

The list of complaints is long and the continuous wretched situation in the camp has made Layla and her husband Mohammed furious. The couple has been living for a year now in Washokani refugee camp near Tel Tamr, a town in the self-governing, multi-ethnic region east of the river Euphrates in northern Syria. “With our four children and our grandmother, we also have to share the cramped tent with another family,” says Mohammed. “The living conditions are unbearable.” The 36-year-old sits lethargically on a boulder playing absently with a thin wooden stick.

Northeast Syria – In the Washokani IDP camp, near Tall Tamr, almost 13,000 people live in unworthy conditions. Between October and November 2019, they lost their home in the Ras al-Ayn region after Turkey occupied the area. The hygienic conditions are catastrophic, there is hardly enough space in the tents to find decent place to sleep, the paths are flooded after rain and have formed large pools of mud. Next to the toilets, large puddles of feces form, some of which the IDPs built themselves. Camp Washokani is sinking into the mud. Image: Sebastian Backhaus.

Boundless hopelessness has overcome the family man Mohammed as he knows the camp will remain his home for an uncertain long period of time. Prospects are bleak for him and his family to return home and lead a normal life as before. A fate that he shares with 13,000 other residents of Washokani camp – and with tens of thousands more who are accommodated poorly in schools and villages.

They are the victims of the invasion by Turkish forces, who in October 2019 occupied a security zone of 120 kilometers long and 30 kilometers deep in the northern Syrian border area. The zone should be a permanent buffer against the Kurdish militia YPG, which Ankara classifies as a terrorist organization. Turkey let Islamist rebel units from Syria fight for itself. It drove out the Kurdish and Christian population from the intended security zone as well as all Arabs who had worked with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Image: infographic WORLD

When one is to believe President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an expansion of the Turkish security zone is imminent. “The terrorists are still present along our border and the threat to our country is growing,” said Erdoğan last October. “We have legitimate reasons to intervene there at any time and crush the terrorists who want to establish a terrorist state.”

The threats coming out of Ankara are taken very seriously in northeast Syria. In the last few weeks there have been increased movements of Turkish troops and unusually frequent skirmishes. People are afraid Turkey might invade again. US President Donald Trump’s final weeks in office would be an ideal opportunity to create a military fait accompli as Washington is preoccupied with itself in transitioning to Joe Biden.

Turkey could take advantage of the power vacuum for a second intervention in northeast Syria. Or Trump could again give the green light for an invasion, as he did in 2019. In northeast Syria some call it treason; after all, did they not defeat the Islamic State together with the U.S.?

A new Turkish offensive would be a bitter blow for the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration. It is in the process of gaining international recognition through the integration of other Syrian opposition groups. In addition, European countries, including Germany, have begun to provide financial assistance to northeast Syria.

An invasion would again turn hundreds of thousands of people into refugees. They would sooner or later try to make their way to Europe – to there where security and quality of life are not a fading dream. Mohammed in the Washokani camp is also thinking of emigrating. He has relatives in Germany. The corona crisis is still holding back the displaced, but the question is: how much longer?

It is only a few kilometers from the refugee camp to the front line outside Tel Tamr. Earth walls raised over two meters high are the final barriers to the Turkish-controlled areas. In the small town of Tel Tamr, which was originally mainly inhabited by Christians, the insane situation of the entire region can be viewed as if under a magnifying glass.

“Six different armies are present in Tel Tamr, it couldn’t be crazier,” says Aram Hanna over a glass of tea. He is the only Christian commander at the most advanced front-line. The 27-year-old Hanna begins to enumerate in the office of his military base; “We have the Russian, American, and Turkish military here. Then there are the soldiers of the Assad regime, the Islamist mercenaries of Turkey, and finally us, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of North and East Syria.”

In a military base of the Christian MFS militia, spokesman and commander Aram Hanna (27) explains the situation at the front. The latest escalation of violence with Turkey forced Aram out of his school and made the former teacher a military commander. Behind him are photos of his fallen comrades. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

This mix of armies came about when the SDF military leadership asked the Syrian regime and its powerful ally Russia for help during the 2019 Turkish invasion. “American and Russian patrols keep clashing,” says Hanna. “And let’s not forget the drones that every party has in the air. There must be regular traffic jams up there in the sky,” he adds with a smile.

But he doesn’t really feel like laughing. “The situation is tense,” says Hanna with a serious voice. “We have been seeing large movements of troops lately, and the mercenaries keep bombarding our positions with mortars and artillery.” His gut feeling tells him that something is up and it feels like calm before the storm, “We have to wait a month until Joe Biden is sworn in as the new president,” says the front-line Christian commander.

“As long as Trump is in office, anything can happen.” He is referring to the telephone call US President had with Erdogan a year ago. To everyone’s surprise, Trump ordered a partial withdrawal of American soldiers from northeast Syria, giving the go-ahead for the Turkish invasion, and it cannot be ruled out that he will repeat this gambit, especially since Trump is still angry about his loss in the elections and wants to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of Joe Biden.

Turkey could take advantage of the weakness of the U.S.

“The US President has always made it clear that he wants to reduce U.S. boots on the ground in the region in order to end what he believes are endless wars,” says Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University in an interview with WELT. Turkey could exploit the weakness of the U.S. during the transition period, believes the Director of the Center of Middle East Studies: “As the saying goes: attack is the best defense.”

Biden’s foreign policy team has already indicated that US troops will remain stationed in Syria and that a political solution is the only possible way out of the conflict. A perspective that is not in the interests of Turkey because it has been pursuing an expansionist foreign policy for years in order to realize Erdogan’s dream of a neo-Ottoman Empire. The military interventions in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and the aggressive behavior in the eastern Mediterranean are clear evidence of this.

“Of course, Turkey is only waiting for an opportunity to invade,” Aram Hanna is convinced. “But we are prepared for the new war, and it will be fought differently from the last invasion,” he asserts confidently and grins. “I’m looking forward to the fight with Turkey. It has been our historical enemy since the Armenian genocide,” explains the Syriac Christian. “Believe me, I don’t mind if my photo is on the wall here.” He turns around and points to the photos of fallen soldiers hanging over the sofa behind him.

At the front in Tel Tamr it quickly becomes clear what the “other war” means. In front of the earthen walls at the Dardara post, soldiers are digging at several tunnels. They are up to nine meters deep, supported by concrete pillars and kilometers long; “All tunnels are connected with each other, and they lead from village to village and into the cities,” says one of the soldiers, sweating from the work. “There are underground hospitals, ammunition depots, and food supplies.”

Die Welt Correspondent Alfred Hackensberger (left) and Matay Hanna (25), commander of the Christian MFS militia, near the front line in Dardara. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

An electric winch pulls up heaps of earth and boulders from the depths. “There will be flaps on the surface from which we can shoot the enemy.” Tunnel excavations can be observed in northeast Syria throughout the whole border area with Turkey. The SDF armed forces are going underground to avoid the Turkish drones.

Drones are Ankara’s newest powerful weapon, which it successfully used again in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the Caucasus. Without modern air defense systems, the SDF troops have no choice but to operate from a tunnel system. Turkey can see the entrances from the air but does not know where the tunnels lead.

Large trenches are being dug between al-Malikiya and the border crossing in Selmalka, near the Turkish border, which will be used to build tunnels. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

An electric winch pulls up heaps of earth and boulders from the depths. “There will be flaps on the surface from which we can shoot the enemy.” Tunnel excavations can be observed in northeast Syria throughout the whole border area with Turkey. T

The two soldiers of the Syrian regime have nothing to do with the excavation work at the Dardara post. They stand lost on the earth wall and look through a binocular at the positions of the Turkish-backed Islamist troops. “They are over there, 1.5 kilometers away,” says one of them, pointing to a mud house on a small hill in the distance. The two young men make a pitiful impression with their worn-out uniforms and shabby flip-flops.

Only their Kalashnikovs give away that they are soldiers. They do not want to give their names out of fear for reprisals. “They often go hungry because their commanding officers steal their food to make money from it,” explains one of the SDF fighters. “Unbelievable,” he adds mockingly. “They still adore the Assad regime and believe it will soon recapture all of Syria.”

Ilham Ahmed has no time to think about the return of the Assad regime. She is the chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a kind of parliamentary body in northeast Syria. Ahmed became known to the wider public when she traveled to Europe and the United States during the Turkish invasion to inform politicians about the dire effects of the war.

“Today we are working on integrating other Syrian opposition groups into our project of democratic self-government,” she says in her office in Qamishli. This includes both Kurdish organizations and Syrian parties that are close to Turkey, as well as opposition representatives from the territories controlled by the regime. “All components of Syrian civil society and politics are represented,” assures Ahmed with a convincing and sympathetic smile.

The Autonomous Administration is currently working to implement a comprehensive reform package, fight corruption, and to overhaul the judiciary. But there should also be new elections in which all groups can participate, emphasizes Ahmed. That would be a great step forward on the way to international recognition, which North and East Syria has so far been denied because the Autonomous Administration was primarily a Kurdish project and dominated by the ideology of the YPG militia. By integrating all opposition groups, North and East Syria would decisively gain legitimacy which would make it easier for Europe to give the region more support.

In Qamishli, bread is baked on a street corner and sold directly. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

International contacts have long been established. Even financial aid has already arrived in the millions of dollars. The donors include the Netherlands, Great Britain and also Germany, says Abdulkarim Omar, the Foreign Minister of North and East Syria. The funds will primarily be used to restructure the internment camps for ISIS members from the West and to establish deradicalization centers for young people.

But there are other plans. “Only a few days ago there was conference,” says Omar proudly, “in which civil society representatives, politicians, and government representatives from in total 47 countries took part.” Compensation for wounded soldiers, families of fallen soldiers and orphaned war children were on the agenda. “There was also discussion about an international tribunal in North and East Syria, which many states welcome,” says Omar. “But there are still discussions about which jurisdiction should be applied.”

Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister is very satisfied. He regards the participation of so many nations as an indirect recognition of North and East Syria. Of course, Omar hopes to expand cooperation with Western nations, especially in the economic field. “But for that there must first be stability and security,” he concludes. “As long as Turkey is constantly threatening us, stability and security are unfortunately not going to happen.”

And it seems that Ankara is not thinking about stopping.

Alfred Hackensberger is a German journalist specialized on North Africa and Middle East. He is correspondent for Die Welt. You can follow him on @hackensberger