The Syrian Democratic Forces said on Wednesday, October 31 that it has temporarily halted its fight against Islamic State due to a series of Turkish military attacks along the border with northern Syria that began on Sunday night.
The SDF, supported by the U.S.-led Coalition has since September been fighting against the last pocket of ISIS territory around Hajin in the Deir Ezzor region near the Iraq border.
In recent days, a series of counter-attacks by ISIS fighters taking advantage of sand storms pushed the SDF out of areas it had captured from the jihadists, prompting the SDF to send battle-hardened special forces and other experienced troops to the area from northern Syria.
The SDF general command said in a statement that six Turkish attacks along the border had “led to the temporary halt” in operations, and could lead to a “long-term suspension of our military campaign” against ISIS “which Turkey wants.”
Currently, the suspension “is a temporary one,” SDF spokesperson Kino Gabriel told The Defense Post.
“We will monitor the development of the situation on the Turkish borders first, and we are ready and have the right to defend ourselves,” he added.
The SDF statement said it called on “the international community to denounce the provocations of the Turkish state against the only safe areas in Syria.”
“This situation is untenable, and it really goes to show how much of a wish and a prayer the Trump team’s strategy in Syria is because finding a happy medium where Turkey and the SDF can coexist seems to be a quixotic venture,” said Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Turkish attacks on northern Syria
Cross-border firing between Turkey and northern Syria continued on Wednesday, October 31, with incidents reported west of Kobani including a YPG claim it destroyed a Turkish military vehicle.
The ANHA news agency reported firing on Selim, Kor Alî, and Ashma, all west of Kobani. It is unclear what type of weaponry was used, but ANHA claimed mortars struck Kor Ali, and “heavy artillery” was used against both Kor Ali and Ashma.
It said civilians were injured.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported anonymous security sources as saying four “terrorists” were killed and six injured after Turkish howitzers in Sanliurfa province fired on positions in the Kobani region.
The incidents follow cross-border firing from Turkey at Tal Abyad on Tuesday night that killed at least one member of the Syrian HXP, the conscripted Self-Defense Forces of the self-declared Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. One other HXP member was injured.
Meanwhile, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian people’s Defense Forces (YPG) published a video of a anti-tank guided missile strike on a Turkish military vehicle, which was later geo-located to a border post east of Goktepe, just across the border from Selim.
#SDF: “We, as the Syrian Democratic Forces, emphasize that we have the right to retaliate against any attack on our lands and, if necessary, we will not refrain from exercising this right.”https://t.co/rpCOgzVVx4 pic.twitter.com/da8khne81k
— Rojava Defense Units | YPG (@DefenseUnits) October 31, 2018
Captions on the video said the strike on the vehicle was in response to the killing on Sunday night of an HXP member, when the Turkish military shelled territory controlled by the SDF west of the Euphrates.
However, an SDF press release said that the vehicle was destroyed “in accordance with the rules of engagement” after Turkish army “shelling the civilian population of Selim village in the Kobane region.”
A new Turkish military operation in northern Syria?
On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey has completed planning for a new military operation in northern Syria to “destroy” the YPG.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch a new offensive in Syria east of the Euphrates to take DFNS territory as far as the Iraq border in the east.
On Friday Erdogan said he was giving a “final warning” to those who endanger Turkey’s borders.
“Erdogan is trying to create rifts between the U.S. and the SDF. Pure and simple, Erdogan wants to see how far he can push the matter before the Americans intervene,” CNAS’s Heras told The Defense Post.
“Turkey shelled Tal Abyad and Kobane as a message to the United States that it has to remove the SDF from all of Turkey’s border region, even east of the Euphrates,” he added.
“Erdogan is telling the Americans that he can make their stabilization strategy to work by, with, and through the SDF a living hell, and that United States had best remember it.”
The YPG is considered by the Turkish government to be inextricably linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, and is designated as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies.
But the YPG is not a proscribed organization in the United Kingdom, United States or European Union and is a key component of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed SDF alliance which is waging a successful campaign against ISIS in Syria.
Comments from CJTF-OIR spokesperson U.S. Army Colonel Sean Ryan on Wednesday suggested the Coalition was trying to de-escalate the situation.
“In regards to the statement made by President Erdogan, we encourage all military partners and Coalition members to synchronize their efforts to ensure our members can continue to operate safely,” Ryan told Kurdistan24.
“We understand Turkey’s concern for the safety of their citizens, and the Coalition goal remains the same, the enduring defeat of ISIS, and it is best to work and communicate together,” he added.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino later expressed concern about the Turkish strikes.
“Unilateral military strikes into northwest Syria by any party, particularly as American personnel may be present or in the vicinity, are of great concern to us,” Palladino said, AFP reported.
“Coordination and consultation between the United States and Turkey on issues of security concern is a better approach,” he said.
Turkey has launched two offensives west of the Euphrates since 2016.
Operation Euphrates Shield captured ISIS-held territory to the west of the river and prevented the SDF from expanding territory it had captured from the jihadists around Manbij.
Earlier this year, Turkish military forces backed Syrian opposition fighters to retake the western Efrin region from the YPG in a two-month air and ground offensive called Operation Olive Branch. There was no ISIS presence in Efrin.
Joanne Stocker contributed reporting. This post was updated on October 31 to include Palladino’s remarks.