At least 9,500 people have fled their homes in Ain Issa, northeast Syria, following an escalation in clashes between the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (TSNA) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in mid-December.
The SDF – the military forces of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava – who control Ain Issa, report daily shelling on the city from Turkish-backed forces for the past week. The sound of fighting could be heard from sunset until noon.
Ain Issa sits approximately 45km (28 miles) by road from Tel Abyad, a city flanking the Turkish border and captured in October 2019 during Ankara’s Operation Peace Spring.
Operation Peace Spring was launched following the abrupt withdrawal of United States troops from Syria to secure a so-called safe-zone on Turkey’s border by clearing the region of People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.
The SDF is comprised of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Labelled a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union, the PKK has waged an armed uprising against the Turkish state since the 1980s.
The Turkish government stated the safe-zone would span 32km (20 miles) deep from the Turkish border into Syria and 444km (276 miles) wide from the Euphrates River to Iraq in order to settle up to two million Syrian refugees currently hosted by Turkey.
The operation resulted in Turkey capturing the cities of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain near its border and controlling an area 20km deep into Syria.
While SDF Press Officer Siyamend Ali told Al Jazeera skirmishes with Turkish-backed forces are not new since the operation, he said the TSNA reinforcements were deployed to Ain Issa over the last month – with clashes intensifying on December 18.
“Especially the past two weeks, Turkish-backed mercenaries have been carrying out fierce attacks on the M4 international road, the town of Ain Issa, surrounding areas and along all contact lines [with] the SDF,” Ali said.
A high-level source in the Turkish Defence Ministry told Al Jazeera there are no clashes in Ain Issa beyond the area under the control of the Turkish armed forces.
“Recently PKK-YPG terrorists based in Ain Issa, south of the M4, attacked our troops in the north of the M4 but they were given due response they deserved,” the Turkish Defence Ministry source stated.
“This event cannot and should not be classified as an attack on Ain Issa or extension of Operation Peace Spring.”
Civilian upheaval and casualties
According to the United Nations, Ain Issa city had a population of 7,089 as of May 2020.
The AANES Humanitarian Office has reported that 6,500 people from the city, plus a further 3,000 people from the surrounding villages, have fled since mid-December.
A man who remained in the city, asking to withhold his name for fear of reprisals should the TSNA take over Ain Issa, said he does not have anywhere to flee to.
“We are here and we will not leave the city … We live here peacefully, and they threaten us with these attacks, what do they want?” he told Al Jazeera.
“Even if there is war, we will not leave.”
Considering there is no infrastructure or displacement camp set up for civilians fleeing their homes, most are travelling to Raqqa, about 55km (34 miles) south of Ain Issa.
Another man, about 50-year-old and a member of the justice council in Ain Issa, said everyone is afraid.
“Those who stay are those who have their job here, and who are most attached to the democratic institutions that we have built up,” he said.
According to the AANES Organizations Office in Ain Issa, 38 civilians have been wounded in the city as of December 20.
The Turkish Defence Ministry source said: “In areas under our control we take all the necessary security measures to normalise life and let local people rebuild their lives.”
“When attacked by PKK-YPG terrorists, Turkish troops give due response to eliminate the threat posed by them.”
Ali, the SDF press officer, said the agreements in place with Turkey are supposed to prevent fighting.
“But they’re trying to occupy new territory in violation of the agreements,” Ali said.
Necdet Ozcelik, a security expert and former member of the Turkish Special Forces, told Al Jazeera that each side is trying to legitimise their military activities.
“It’s not a ceasefire agreement because an agreement is signed between legitimate actors, and neither TSNA or Turkey considers YPG as legitimate actors,” Ozcelik said.
“From the Turkish perspective, this is a terrorist organisation trying to use some legitimate terms to bring much more sympathy from an international audience.”
A murky ceasefire
On October 17 last year, the US brokered a ceasefire deal with Turkey stipulating the need for YPG forces to withdraw from the Turkish controlled safe zone and the collection of heavy weapons.
The source in the Turkish Defence Ministry stressed the YPG had continued to target the military and civilian population despite the ceasefire.
“All along the Operation Peace Spring area PKK-YPG terrorists are constantly engaged in subversive activities such as firing on Turkish and Syrian National Army soldiers [and] digging tunnels in order to infiltrate and smuggle explosives for bomb attacks,” they said.
Turkey said on Sunday its military had killed 15 YPG fighters, who it said were preparing to carry out an attack in northeast Syria.
On December 10 a car bomb detonated at a checkpoint in Turkish controlled Ras al-Ain, killing 12 people including two Turkish security officers. Turkey holds the YPG responsible for the attack.
The Turkish Defence Ministry stressed Ankara considers the M4 highway as the ceasefire line, an “approximate distance of 24-32km from [the Turkish] border”.
While the SDF claims Turkey is violating agreements made last year, Ali described the current clashes as being “deep inside Syria” – 35km (22 miles) from the border.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – the political wing of the SDF – in Ain Issa, who asked for his name to be withheld, told Al Jazeera the clashes were further than 32km from the Turkish border.
“Which means that it is outside what Ankara claims to be a threatening area to its alleged national security,” he said.
Ain Issa is a strategic city, militarily and in terms of transport, as it sits on the M4 highway which begins at the Iraqi border, connects to Aleppo and continues to the Syrian coast.
“The other issue that makes Ain Issa important is it contains the headquarters of the [AANES] and its institutions – Ankara aims to destroy this project by striking its capital,” the SDC member continued.
Ozcelik said if Turkey and its local forces seized Ain Issa, its objective to establish a safe zone along its border would have progressed.
“If Turkey seizes Ain Issa it’s going to be an indication of future military activities, to clear [YPG]/PKK from Ain al Arab/Kobane area as well,” Ozcelik said.
Since the US-Turkish ceasefire last year, Russia has had troops on the ground in Ain Issa and has set up a base in the former coalition headquarters.
One month ago, Russia erected three new observation posts in the north of Ain Issa city, in what Ozcelik described as Moscow trying to “penetrate” the US or Turkish territorial control in the area.
“The Russians [would] like to bring Syrian regime military elements into northeast Syria as much as possible,” Ozcelik explained.
“If the [observation posts] are attacked by the SNA or Turkey, then Russia will legitimise the deployment of more troops in that area.”
Ali from the SDF said Russia is supposed to observe and enforce the ceasefire agreement, especially considering clashes are taking place less than 1km from Moscow’s base.
“So far they did not act in line with this mission … [the Syrian government and Russia] have done nothing in support of the SDF and they continue to remain silent,” Ali said.
According to the SDC, Russia is trying to push the AANES, who have controlled the northeast of Syria since 2012, to cede control to the Syrian government.
“Russia demands that the area be handed over to the regime as a condition to stop the Turkish attack,” the member of the SDC expressed.
The SDF refuses to do so, even though, as Ali explains, it expects the situation on the ground to worsen.
“Turkey’s ultimate goal in this area is to occupy this town,” Ali said.