The majority of non-combatants have moved about 20km (12 miles) from the border with Turkey into southern villages as the Turkish military and its allies attempt to clear a corridor from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that it deems a “terrorist” organisation.
Turkey’s military action in the region currently controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was being met with strong resistance. At least one Turkish soldier and four allied fighters have been killed so far, while Ankara said more than 340 SDF soldiers have died.
Turkey has been for decades fighting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within its own borders. The SDF is spearheaded by the YPG, which controls about a quarter of Syria between the Euphrates river and the Iraq border.
Turkey says the purpose of the military push into SDF-held territory is to drive the YPG away from its border establish a “safe zone” where some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey can be resettled.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that the military operation would not stop, as the UN said that more than 70,000 people have fled the violence.
“We will not stop. We will not take one step backwards,” he said.
Turkey’s foreign ministry also slammed warnings that the offensive could trigger an humanitarian crisis, saying they were “fabricated in order to discredit Turkey’s counter-terrorism efforts”.
Ankara’s offensive began after US forces, who allied with the SDF to break the hold of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) on the region, were withdrawn from the border.
The PKK has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984, initially for Kurdish independence, although it now presses for greater autonomy and rights for the country’s largest ethnic minority.
Turkish forces and PKK fighters have been engaged in intense clashes in the southeast of the country since a 2013 ceasefire collapsed and Turkey started an air campaign against the group.
The conflict has left tens of thousands dead over the years.
In the current offensive, guerrilla tactics are being employed by the Turkish forces, including ambushes from trenches and the use of tunnels to conceal movement.
Shahin Najib al-Ali, a justice council member in the Syrian city of Kobane, told Al Jazeera civilians are travelling to tents set up along the border – even from as far away as the city of Raqqa – to act as “human shields” against Turkey’s forces.
“I was there until 3pm today in that tent of human shields. The bombardment was raining close by in the east, west and south of the tents,” al-Ali said.
Young people in northeast Syria, typically between the ages of 20 and 25, were also registering themselves as fighters with the YPG and the SDF to defend their cities, while older people, including women, were attempting to protect their homes and communities, he said.
“We took the decision that we will defend this region until the last minute of our lives,” al-Ali said.
‘Fight to the death’
Turkey is NATO’s second-biggest military force with about 800,000 military personnel and a budget of $19bn in 2018.
The YPG-led SDF, on the other hand, does not have anywhere close to those resources, but the Kurdish-majority fighters do not appear to be deterred by the military imbalance.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute based in the United States, told Al Jazeera she did not expect the YPG to retreat.
“Determination is one factor in regards to military success, [but] then you have quite a superior military force that has jets and drones at its disposal,” Tsurkov said.
While Turkey is a better-equipped military force, the YPG has thousands of fighters who are unwavering and have been trained by the US to battle the ISIL.
“They fought ISIS even when they were outmatched against them in Kobane and in Sinjar, Iraq … and they did not give up,” Tsurkov noted.
“They are a highly determined force and here they’re defending their home, so I think at the end there will be people who fight to the death.”
Currently, ground operations by the Turkish military are focused on the villages of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. The SDF pulled their forces away from the border, leaving armed civilians to defend their towns, according to Tsurkov.
The SDF has advanced weaponry provided by the US in the war against ISIL.
Tsurkov said she believes as Turkey moves deeper into Syria, this weaponry will be unleashed by the SDF to support its defence.
Nowhere to turn
Despite the SDF feeling betrayed after the US pulled out its troops and support from northeast Syria, the Kurdish-led group cannot sever ties completely, considering it has no one else to turn to in the West, and Damascus and Moscow will not negotiate terms of assistance.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow from the German Marshall Fund based in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera the SDF is desperate to take whatever the US offers.
“[Even if that’s only] Trump’s vague threats to obliterate the Turkish economy [or] whether that’s the US Congress looking at sanctions on Turkey,” Danforth said.
Meanwhile, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has continued to demand the Kurdish forces surrender the land they captured during the civil war and have since controlled since 2011.
“The YPG wasn’t willing to surrender its autonomy in return for the regime’s support against Turkey,” Danforth explained.
Still, the SDF and the YPG have maintained a relationship with the Syrian government, just in case the US decided to abandon them – as it did earlier this week, he said.
‘Very difficult position’
Even though President Donald Trump had threatened the withdrawal of American troops from Syria since last December, this week’s sudden pullout caught the Kurdish administration off guard, analysts said.
“[It has made it] much more difficult for the Syrian Kurds to seek the kind of arrangement with Damascus and Moscow that they otherwise might have been able to,” Danforth said.
“Essentially, now Damascus is asking for surrender rather than any negotiated agreement, putting the YPG in a very difficult position.”
The SDF now faces pressure from both sides – Turkey and al-Assad’s government in Damascus.
Tsurkov said the Kurds will try and delay any choice and hope for intervention from the international community.
“They have many countries and leaders who feel sympathy for them and recognise the sacrifice they made with ISIS,” Tsurkov said.
“And yet, they aren’t willing to act on this and support them, other than issuing a statement.”
Al-Ali in Kobane said the people in northeast Syria hope Trump “takes his decision back”.
“We as the SDF and the Kurdish people that were in this region, we defeated the big terrorist organisations like Daesh [ISIL],” al-Ali said.
“So we hope … the US and coalition … protect their allies and also the people who were helping them to defeat the terrorist groups.”