Fears in Syria’s Azaz as threat of conflict rises once again

Five civilians were killed in a missile attack in Azaz on Tuesday as Turkey and the YPG exchange attacks.

Children stand in front of the rubble of a destroyed shop
Tuesday's missile attack hit the centre of Azaz, which had become a refuge for Syrians fleeing from other parts of the country [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Omair al-Najjar had only been married for nine days when the missile exploded in the centre of Azaz on Tuesday.

The 22-year-old was one of the five civilians who died in the attack on the Syrian opposition city in northern Aleppo province.

Al Jazeera was unable to verify who fired the missiles, but the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, said that the missiles had been fired from areas controlled by the Syrian government and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

“He moved to Azaz because it was a safe zone, away from the attacks of the Syrian regime and Russia,” one of al-Najjar’s family members, who did not wish to be named, told Al Jazeera. Al-Najjar had left his home town of Kafarouma, near Maarat al-Numan, at the end of 2019, as Syrian government forces advanced on the town, before they eventually seized control of it at the start of 2020.

He eventually found work in a clothes shop in Azaz’s town centre – where he was eventually killed.

Tuesday’s attack came after days of Turkish air attacks against the predominantly Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, as well as YPG rocket attacks on Turkey and opposition-controlled areas of Syria. Civilians on both sides have died in the attacks.

Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The recent uptick in violence came as Turkey threatened a new ground operation following the November 13 Istanbul bombing, which it blamed on the YPG and the PKK, despite their denials. There have been fears that the security situation in Azaz, previously a relatively safe area under Turkish protection, will deteriorate.

“I have survived death, but the smell of blood filled the place, and I remembered the previous strikes that hit when I lived in Maarat al-Numan,” said Hassan al-Khatib, one of the survivors of the Azaz attack, who works as a lawyer.

“I chose Azaz because it is a border region, and it is safe as it’s away from [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad and Russia,” said al-Khatib. “However, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) strike populated areas, in addition to the increasing military escalation each day.”

Hassan al-Khatib stands in front of rubble
Hassan al-Khatib survived Tuesday’s attack on Azaz, but is now worried about the security situation in the town [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“If Azaz, which we considered to be the safest place to live, is under attack, then I don’t think there’s any place that is safe,” he added.

According to Firas Fahham, a Syrian researcher at the Istanbul-based Jusoor for Studies think-tank, the attacks on Turkey indicated an escalation.

“The SDF targeting of Turkey is proof that the SDF is taking the Turkish threats against them seriously,” Fahham said, blaming the recent attacks on Turkish border areas on the SDF.

“It seems that the SDF fears that Turkey will act on its threats and is attempting to make it more costly for Turkey [to carry out an operation] by putting pressure on it and striking Turkish border areas in an attempt to affect Turkish public opinion and embarrass the Turkish government with presidential elections approaching,” Fahham added.

Despite Turkey’s previous and numerous threats to launch a military offensive against the SDF forces, Fahham believed that things may be different this time, as a result of Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine. Russia, along with Western countries and Iran, have repeatedly warned against a new Turkish ground offensive against the SDF.

Syrian opposition forces, including the Syrian National Army, have said that they are ready to participate in any upcoming Turkish military operation against the SDF.

“Our forces have previously conducted intense training in preparation for a new military operation that was postponed for various reasons,” said Al-Farouk Abubakr, a leader in the Syrian National Army (SNA).

“Raising the readiness of the SNA has coincided with the Turkish army’s preparations, and the Turkish president’s statements on the possibility of ground forces participating … in an operation,” Abubakr added.

Source: Al Jazeera