There have been concerns in recent weeks that the Turkish government will take advantage of the lull between the U.S. presidential election and the inauguration to move against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF has been the partner of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). 

The Turks want to take away the Kurds’ access to the strategic M4 highway. According to a spokesman of the YPG (the Kurdish Protection Units which form the bulk of the SDF), Turkish units have been setting up watchtowers, surveillance cameras, and snipers at Saida, a deserted village just north of the M4. The strategic highway is also a demarcation line between the areas controlled by the Turks and Kurds. The SDF is concerned that Turkey is planning another large offensive on their areas.

Turkish proxy forces continue to shell Ayn Issa and other small villages in northern Syria. Yet, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has reported that positions in Ayn Issa city and the neighboring countryside came under heavy shelling by both Turkish and proxy militia forces.

Analysts and observers on the ground consider the heavy shelling as a sign that the Turkish military is planning a large-scale operation to capture Ayn Issa from the Kurds. 

SOHR has consistently highlighted the strategic importance of the Ayn Issa district and the link between Aleppo and al-Hasakah, via the M4 highway which runs through the district. 

Besides shelling Kurdish areas, the Turks have been obstructing civilian travel along M4 even though civilians are supposed to be under the protection of joint Turkish-Russian patrols.   

Turkey planning an attack in Syria
A map of the M4 Highway and areas of control by regional groups. (Infographic by Büşra Öztürk via Daily Sabah)

The SDF, with backing by the U.S.-led coalition, had captured Ayn Issa from ISIS in 2015 after fierce fighting. Ayn Issa has since been the capital of the Kurds’ “Autonomous Administration” in the northeastern Syria region. In the city, the Kurds have set up training camps, important command centers, and headquarters of the Internal Security Forces and SDF.

Turkey views the SDF as a part of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated as a terrorist organization by Ankara and the U.S. Turkish President Erdogan has been openly threatening action against SDF.  

“There are still terrorist areas in Syria. Either they are cleansed as we have been promised or we’ll go and do it ourselves,” Erdogan had said back in early October. 

Later that month he had said that, “Efforts are underway to establish a terrorist state there. Turkey will never allow the creation of such a state along its borders. We’ll do what it takes to drain the terrorist swamp.”

Erdogan had added that Turkey had, “a legitimate reason to intervene at any moment” if “all terrorists are not removed… as we have been promised.”

The Turks have sought Russian cooperation in the area and had asked Russia to set up a base in Saida. Nevertheless, Putin’s government had refused. 

But there is another angle too, and that is oil money. Ankara is upset that oil from the Kurdish-held areas is flowing to outside sources along the M4 and putting money into the SDF’s pockets.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency published a report on the flow of oil. “While under U.S. sanctions, the Syrian regime continues to obtain oil from the YPG/PKK terrorist organization, the United States’ partner. The oil trade […] has totaled 15,000 trucks over the past month. Tankers carrying oil from YPG/PKK have been spotted in at least three locations occupied by the organization, including Tell Tamer, Ayn Issa, and Raqqa,” the report stated.