Turkish offensive will risk Syria confrontation in Qamishli

Border city is one of few places in Syria's north-east where Damascus has troops stationed

Syrians bury Syrian Democratic Forces fighters killed fighting the Turkish advance in the Syrian town of Qamishli. AP
Syrians bury Syrian Democratic Forces fighters killed fighting the Turkish advance in the Syrian town of Qamishli. AP

Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish forces in north-east Syria has raised the prospect of a rare confrontation with Syrian government troops in the border city of Qamishli.

The city has been bombed and battles have raged to the west as Turkey invades south of its border where the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are in control.

But Syrian troops maintain a presence in some neighbourhoods of Qamishli, including a civilian airport and an area known as the “security square”, which is home to government security branches.

Despite two previous Turkish incursions into northern Syria, the two political rivals have largely avoided direct clashes over the course of the Syrian war, now in its ninth year.

But Turkey’s latest military campaign aims to establish a “safe zone” stretching hundreds of kilometres along its border and about 30km deep into Syrian territory by driving back the SDF, whose Kurdish members it considers to be terrorists.

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab forces have already pushed into border cities and towns west of Qamishli and reached an international highway extending between the town and Manbij.

But what the Turkish assault on Qamishli could mean for the Syrian government so far remains unclear.

The Syrian army announced late on Sunday that it had sent troops to "confront the Turkish aggression" in the north of the country, the state news agency Sana said.

Analysts say the risk of a direct clash between the two sides is low at present.

“The regime has a light footprint in the north-east,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Syrian forces in Qamishli simply “don’t have the capacity to push against the Turkish military if it comes down to that”, Ms Khalifa said.

There is a lack of precedent for any major clash military clash between Turkey and Syria, both of which are close to Moscow.

“They’ve almost never done so,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“I know that many of the Syrian fighters now working for Turkey wish to confront the regime but I do not believe that Turkey will allow this.

“Turkey is not going to upset Russia by launching attacks at the regime.”

Ankara launched the offensive just days after US President Donald Trump ordered US troops on the Turkey-Syria border to pull back, effectively abandoning the SDF, which was its main ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria,

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday that America was planning to withdraw 1,000 troops from Syria, suggesting that SDF pleas for support would go unheeded.

"We also have learned in the last 24 hours that the SDF are looking to cut a deal with the Syrians and the Russians to counter-attack against the Turks in the north," Mr Esper told the Face the Nation TV programme.

Ms Khalifa did not see that this would deter Ankara in its push for the safe zone.

“I would take Turkey face value on this, in that the objectives they’ve announced so far include the 30km zone, which encompasses Qamishli,” she said.

“If we don’t see a strong US pushback, I would anticipate that nothing would stop them from moving further.”

For residents of Qamishli, the presence of government soldiers in their city has raised the question of where to seek refuge from the bombardment.

“I don’t feel necessarily that regime presence in the city makes it safe,” said Akhteen Asaad, a Kurdish journalist who lives in Qamishli with his wife and two young children.

“I feel that the fact that the regime is here just means it’s been bombed more lightly.”

Some of Asaad’s relatives took shelter with family members in a housing complex close to the airport when the bombing started.

They thought that being close to a government-held area would protect them from the worst of the onslaught, he said.

One friend, a taxi driver, drove his children to the airport, where they parked and simply waited out the bombing in their car.

Updated: October 14, 2019 08:40 AM


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