‘A new level of hostility’ on Syria’s northern border as Turkish, Kurdish shells fly

AMMAN: Turkish and Kurdish armed forces traded artillery fire across Syria’s northern border on Thursday amidst heightened tensions following Ankara’s deadly attack on US-backed Kurdish forces earlier in the week.

“The bombing is intense and has not let up,” Roj Mousa, a Kurdish journalist currently in the area targeted by Turkish shells told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The journalist claimed that “over the past two days, more than 200 artillery shells” had been launched at villages and a radio station in Afrin, a pocket of Kurdish-held territory on Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria.

Cross-border shelling and sniping is a frequent occurrence in Afrin and other northern, Kurdish-held territories. What is different this time, Mousa says, is the “strong response by the YPG” militia, which has been firing back over the border.

Pro-YPG media and Mousa claim that the militia killed and injured a handful of Turkish soldiers and destroyed tanks along the border on Wednesday and Thursday. Turkish state media reported shelling but did not mention any loss of personnel or military equipment.

 Smoke rises from a Turkish border point with Afrin after Kurdish bombardment on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Roj Mousa.

Afrin, where the heaviest shelling is taking place, is the westernmost pocket of a swathe of Kurdish-held, de-facto autonomous territory in Syria known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan. The territories are ruled by the Self-Administration, which is led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, defends the territories.

Afrin is an isolated canton, cut off from the rest of Rojava by territories held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and the regime. 

The YPG is also a central member of the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently leading the fight against the Islamic State (IS) near its self-proclaimed Syrian capital in Raqqa city.

Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency for decades inside Turkey in which thousands of people have been killed.

The contrast between Washington and Ankara’s positions towards the same militia—one seeing it as a valued partner, the other as a terrorist organization—is a point of tension between the United States and Turkey.

That tension has been brought to the forefront in recent days following a deadly attack on US-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

Before dawn on Tuesday, Turkish warplanes carried out a series of airstrikes against YPG headquarters in the Derik area of Hasakah province, in northeastern Syria, killing and wounding dozens of fighters with the militia, including its all-female branch, the YPJ. Similar strikes took place in Iraq’s Sinjar region.

 A demonstration in northern Syria on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Rojava Defense Units.

Ankara called the attack an operation against “hotbeds of terrorism” that aimed to stop the flow of fighters and munitions into Turkey from neighboring Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq.

Hours after Tuesday’s airstrikes, state media agency Anadolu, citing an anonymous security official, reported that a recent PKK bombing in southeast Turkey had been conducted “using US-supplied munitions” and that “weapons supplied to the PKK/PYD by the US had also been found in PKK camps.”

Ankara notified the United States-led coalition, through the Qatar-based Combined Air Operations Center, “less than an hour” before Tuesday’s bombing, the US Department of Defense reported on Wednesday.

“This was notification,” spokesman Air Force Col John Dorrian on Wednesday, “not coordination as you would expect from a partner and an ally in the fight against ISIS.”

Coalition forces on the ground in northeastern Syria were within six miles of the Turkish airstrikes, Dorrian told Pentagon reporters via a teleconference from Baghdad.

The United States has stopped short of condemning Tuesday’s attack. Russia’s Foreign Ministry criticized Turkey’s airstrikes on Wednesday, urging “restraint” from all parties and saying the actions “discourage consolidation of anti-terrorist efforts.”

On Wednesday, Turkish state media agency Anadolu said that Kurdish fighters had launched attacks against several border points inside Turkey on Wednesday, and that the army responded. The YPG and other sources in the Kurdish territories claim that Turkish forces fired first.

 Smoke rises over Kurdish-held Dirbasiyeh in northern Syria following Turkish shelling on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Rojava Defense Units.

In the border town of Dirbasiyeh, 50km west of Qamishli in Hasakah province, the YPG claims that Turkish forces attempted to cross the border and were driven back.

The Self-Administration evacuated residents of some houses on the frontlines during the Dirbasiyeh violence. The evacuees have yet to return to their homes, said Evinda Hassan, the spokeswoman for the governing body’s interior agency.

“The situation is very tense” in Dirbasiyeh, Hassan told Syria Direct on Thursday. “There could be new clashes at any moment.”

Large demonstrations broke out on Wednesday and Thursday in several Kurdish towns calling for a no-fly zone and international protection for the areas known as Rojava.

The YPG and local opposition activists reported Turkish warplanes hovering in the sky on Thursday. The same day, Turkish shelling on the north Raqqa province town of Tel Abyad struck civilian areas, the militia said.

Tuesday’s airstrikes on the YPG and subsequent shelling of border areas led some Kurdish and Arab components of the SDF to threaten to withdraw from the Raqqa battles with IS if steps were not taken to protect Kurdish areas in northern Syria.

However, from the frontlines in Raqqa province on Thursday, one YPG commander told Syria Direct that the battles would not be affected.

“For us to stop the Raqqa battle would be to give Turkey what it wants and give in to its pressures,” the commander, who requested anonymity, told Syria Direct. “This only makes us more determined.”

But while the US-backed fight continues in Raqqa, along the border to the north, there is worry that another frontline may be taking shape.

“The relationship between Turkey and the YPG has reached a new level of hostility,” said journalist Mousa.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.