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Revealed: Turkey's three-stage plan to capture northern Syria from Kurdish militias, lasting into 2020 Open in fullscreen

Adi Smajić & Paul McLoughlin

Revealed: Turkey's three-stage plan to capture northern Syria from Kurdish militias, lasting into 2020

Turkish-backed fighters are poised for a new offensive in northern Syria [Adi Smjaic/TNA/file photo]

Date of publication: 9 October, 2019

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In-depth: Syrian fighters are poised to launched a third Turkish-backed offensive in northern Syria.
Days after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his country's forces were poised for a new offensive into northern Syria, thousands of former Syrian rebel fighters - who will make up the main component of the Turkish operation - remain armed and ready, but still on standby.

Around 15,000 Syrian fighters are expected to take part in the Turkey-led intervention that aims at capturing border areas controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian-Kurdish militia, which Ankara accuses of being part of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The Turkish intervention will be launched in three stages over several months, sources have told The New Arab, and will see scores of Kurdish and Arab towns and villages in northeastern Syria come under direct Turkish control.

One of the key aims of Erdogan during the Syria war has been to secure the border area from hostile Kurdish militias and put Ankara in charge of aid, trade and secrurity in a wide stretch of land across its fraught border.

But an attempt to mobilise an army of Syrian fighters earlier this year for the campaign fell apart, following disagreements between several rebel factions, one source said.

Now, with Syrian groups unified under the National Army (NA) umbrella and the US withdrawing from the region, the military operation is expected to commence at any time.
We have enough instructions when where to go to and there are only a few US advisers left in the city [Tal Abyad].
- Mohammed Atareb, National Army
"The offensive will take place over several axes [and there will be] a new unified operations room established to plan movements between different [rebel] factions," a rebel source told The New Arab.

'Betrayed'

US President Donald Trump appeared to give his blessings for Erdogan's long-awaited intervention when the White House issued a statement on Sunday evening ordering American troops to withdraw from border areas and to not get embroiled in an expected offensive by Turkey.

"Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial 'Caliphate," will no longer be in the immediate area," the statement read, condemning the SDF to fight Turkey alone.

Although many in Washington were shocked by the stark announcement, Turkish intervention in SDF territories has long been on the cards, particularly due to the president's efforts in withdrawing American troops from Syria.

Read more: Worse than 1975: Trump's cynical betrayal of the Kurds

A tweet by Trump on Monday warned Turkey not to go "off limits", but this was not viewed as a demand to cancel the planned offensive, due to American troops already pulling-out of territories Ankara already has its eyes on.

Since the collapse of IS last year, Trump has pledged to "bring home" the some 1,000 US troops currently in Syria, despite warnings from some security experts that the group could make a comeback or benefit Russia and Iran.

US troops have already withdrawn from some posts in northern Syria, another sign that a Turkish offensive - relying heavily on Syrian rebel proxies - is imminent.

Syrian fighters in the Turkish force have told The New Arab that the new campaign - which follows Ankara-led Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch offensives against the YPG - will be split into three consecutive parts, beginning this year and ending in the first few months of 2020.

Although the sources did not confirm when the operation will commence, Turkish planes have reportedly been observing YPG positions in northern Syria and moved thousands of troops to the border, indicating that the ground offensive will begin sooner rather than later.

"The fighters of the National Army have been ready since last year. We don't need training, we need work, somewhere - anywhere. Nobody wants to sit and home and watch how things unfold," Khalid Al-Alie, a member of the Syrian armed coalition, told The New Arab.

"We have the knowledge, the training and weapons, now just give us some space. Our enemies are everywhere - from Assad, to the PKK and IS - we want to fight everyone but our hands are tied. Now we are ready for one enemy at least, and hopefully soon we will enter North Raqqa."

Eastern Euphrates

Oginally known as "Eastern Euphrates Shield" - now "Operation Spring of Peace" - the Turkish-led offensive in northern Syria is now in its final stages of preparation. Members of the force have told The New Arab their advance will coincide with the withdrawal of American troops from logistics centres in the area, a process that has already started.

The US base in Tal Abyad, a border town in northern Raqqa province, has already been abandoned in preparation for the Turkish assault, which will be the first area targeted for the Eastern Euphrates Shield force.

Turkish armour and Syrian National Army fighters have started to build-up in border areas waiting for orders to move towards Tal Abyad and other key border towns to the east of the Euphrates River, which have become a stronghold of the SDF.

Phase two will see other towns and villages in the north taken by the fighters.

The final chapter in the campaign will see National Army troops backed by around 300 Turkish commandos and hundreds of vehicles from the 5th Armoured Brigade move into Manbij.

Tal Rifaat and other towns in northern Syria will also be targeted, thus guaranteeing Ankara control over a long strip of territory running along the Syria-Turkey border.

Turkey has long pushed for the establishment of a "safe zone" in this area, in part to secure the border regions from Kurdish militias and also as a potential place to settle Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.

Rebel commanders said the "safe zone" will span 150km along the Turkish border and be 25km deep, occupying territories that is populated by Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian towns and villages.

US pressure

Despite the readiness of the fighters to move into Tal Abyad, rebel commanders have not yet been given the order to advance.

Mohammed Atareb, a member of the 9th Division of the National Army, accused the YPG of spreading "propaganda" to deter Turkey, using "old pictures" of US and European troops being present in the border town.

"We have enough instructions when where to go to and there are only a few US advisers left in the city," Atareb told The New Arab.

"We will enter Tal Abyad, we can do it now, but the pressure from the US is big. They will not fight against us but their fight is coming through sanctions on Turkey," something Trump alluded to in his tweet on Monday.

Several leading Republicans and US defence chiefs appear horrified by the idea of Washington dropping support for their Kurdish allies just months after the SDF's gruelling campaign against IS came to a close.

Some expect further push-back from Trump's military advisers and the US' European allies, deeply embarrassed by the betrayal of the SDF and wary that further unrest could allow IS to regroup and launch a new insurgency.

Another obstacle in the way for the Turkish-backed force is the possibility of the SDF inviting regime forces into towns such as Tal Rifaat and Manbij. There are already signs that an alliance between the YPG and Assad could be in the making.

"We are considering a partnership with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the aim of fighting Turkish forces," said Mazlum Kobane, the SDF commander, on Tuesday.

This may well be the bravado of a group desperate for friends, but the YPG had indeed invited regime militias to Afrin prior to Turkey's January 2018 assault.

The presence of the token pro-Assad force failed to discourage Ankara from pursuing their mission and Afrin remains under Turkish control, but a large presence of regime troops could.

One media member of faction in the Syrian National Army said these factors could lead to delay in the offensive on Tal Rifaat and Manbij, but the towns will eventually be taken by the Turkish-backed forces.

"Our psychological condition and readiness is definitely on a higher level now. There is no doubt that the pressure is going to increase but, God willing, we will paralyse the regime and impede their movements," he said.

The SDF's pledges to hold-off the advanced Turkish-led force - without air cover and, unlike mountainous Afrin, on flat land - will likely prove a difficult task.

Rebel sources say they are concerned that the YPG could leave behind sleeper cells to carry out attacks, as has happened in Afrin.

Europe appears more concerned with the possibility of a IS resurgence, particularly with the risk of already understaffed and volatile "IS jails" falling out of SDF control if guards are called up to defend the territories or are forced to retreat from the area.

The outcome for civilians could be even more harrowing, particularly if fierce fighting or bloody Kurdish or IS insurgencies begin, or if the regime take control of territories in Raqqa province. 

Tossed between regime, rebel, IS and SDF control, few expect the latest Turkish-backed offensive to end the fighting in this troubled region.

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

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