Azaz, Syria – Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces have said their forces are ready for battle, and expect a new Turkish military operation in Syria to start soon.
Units of the Syrian National Army (SNA) paraded on Thursday through the streets of Azaz, a town in northern Aleppo province, in an effort to show their preparedness for the operation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened in recent weeks against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Vehicles drove thousands of armed fighters through Azaz and several areas near the front lines between areas controlled by Turkey and the SDF in Tal Rifaat.
“The goal is to be on standby for the battle and show our strength,” said General Abdul Salam Hamidi, a commander in the SNA’s Third Corps, whose forces were participating in the parade.
Erdogan has stated that Tal Rifaat, which lies in a pocket of SDF-controlled territory surrounded by Turkish and Syrian government-controlled territory, is a target for the operation, along with Manbij, which lies to the east.
Turkey aims to force SDF fighters out of areas on the Turkey-Syria border that Ankara wants to control as part of a 30-kilometre “safe zone”, where Syrian refugees could be relocated, amid controversy in Turkey over the millions of Syrian refugees in the country.
Turkey has taken control of large stretches of territory along the border after fighting ISIL (ISIS) and the SDF in three major operations since 2016.
However, SDF-controlled territory such as Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Kobane remain out of Ankara’s reach.
The United Nations accused Turkey and its Syrian allies of human rights violations during the most recent 2019 operation, which targeted Afrin, in northern Aleppo province.
At the time, Turkey rejected the accusations, and called them “unfounded allegations”.
The United States-backed SDF is largely made up of the YPG, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the European Union and the US have designated as a “terrorist” organisation.
“Preparations for this battle have been ongoing for a long time, and we have not stopped training our units,” said Hamidi. “The training involved ensuring that the fighters were ready for battle.”
Although shelling has been continuing between the SNA and the SDF, it is unclear when Turkey will launch the new operation, if it chooses to do so.
Russia, the US, and the Syrian government have all publicly voiced their opposition to any new military operation, and the SDF has said that it will turn to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if Turkey attacks.
A spokesman for the SNA also said that Russia had been reinforcing positions near Tal Rifaat, Manbij and the southern outskirts of Kobane.
But, after the military parade in Azaz, the SNA is still adamant that the fight will happen.
“The initial goals are to take control of Tal Rifaat and Manbij, as well as their surrounding areas, to push out the SDF, and allow for residents who had previously been forced out to return,” Abu Ali Atono, a commander in the SNA, told Al Jazeera.
Many residents of Tal Rifaat, which has a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, fled the town when it was taken by the SDF in 2016, after Russian air attacks. A large number of the Arab residents have not returned.
“Many of our fighters are from Tal Rifaat and Manbij,” said Atono. “They consider the upcoming military operation a chance to liberate their towns and return home.”