Northern Syria, where the Assad regime has little control, is a political theatre with different militant alliances running different regions. This is what’s going on.
Despite the Syrian regime’s gains in most of the country, northern Syria is still a hotbed of various political and armed alliances, from opposition groups to the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
The YPG presence across the Turkish border in Syria has been a thorn in the side for Turkey. Its umbrella organisation, the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU, has also staged a three-decade armed campaign against the Turkish state, costing tens of thousands lives.
Since the Syrian civil war exploded, the US and Russia have created spheres of influence across the region, using different proxies. In northern Syria, the ancient Euphrates River has traditionally been the border between the Washington-backed and Moscow-backed forces.
A de facto no-fly zone has been in effect—enforced by the US air force, east of the Euphrates River—against the Syrian regime and its backers, where the YPG has established “cantons”, or autonomous regions, since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
Russia controls the airspace over territories west of the Euphrates River, which have been divided between Turkish-backed forces, other opposition groups and the Assad regime.
Here is a breakdown of everything happening in northern Syria.
Turkey’s cross-border operations
Since mid-2016, Turkey has launched two major military operations across the Syrian border to secure a swathe of territory between YPG-controlled cantons and opposition-controlled Idlib province.
During Turkey’s first Euphrates Shield Operation, from August 2016 to March 2017, the country’s military and its allied forces cleared much of the Daesh presence across its border, capturing the strategic town al-Bab. Daesh has put enormous emphasis on the importance of the town in its apocalyptic vision, so losing the territory was a significant blow.
Euphrates Shield also succeeded in severing the routes between the YPG’s Afrin canton in northwestern Syria west of the Euphrates River and its other cantons, Kobani and Jazira, in northeastern Syria east of the Euphrates River.
The YPG was aiming to join its northeastern cantons with Afrin in order to create a ‘northern zone’ along Turkey’s border to find a way to reach the Mediterranean Sea.
In January of this year, Ankara launched another military operation, Operation Olive Branch, targeting the YPG’s Afrin canton. After three months, Turkey-backed forces were able to claim Afrin and effectively connected the territories controlled through the Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch.
In 2015, Turkey announced its ‘red lines’ on YPG presence west of the Euphrates, saying that if the YPG moves west of the Euphrates, Turkey would have to intervene. Through its operations, Turkey fulfilled its objectives concerning its red lines, securing a Turkish-administered territory between the YPG’s Kobane canton and opposition-controlled Idlib.
The mostly Arab-dominated town, Manbij, located west of the Euphrates, is in the hands of the Manbij Military Council, a YPG-led local group. While the YPG has been recruiting most of its militants from the Syrian Kurdish population, the group has overseen mostly Arab-populated areas like Manbij in northern Syria.
Since 2016, when YPG-led groups claimed the town from Daesh, Turkey repeatedly ordered the group to leave Manbij. After taking over large areas across the Turkish border with its two operations, Turkey started focusing on Manbij and other YPG-led areas east of the Euphrates River.
The YPG’s political and military position in Manbij are supported by Washington through the mobilisation of US special forces in Manbij, preventing Ankara from kicking out YPG-led forces there.
After the recent release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, which had become a contentious issue between Washington and Ankara, resulting in sanctions by both states over each other, US-Turkish relations have begun warming again, heralding a new period.
In October, both states announced that they agreed to dispatch joint patrols in Manbij. Joint patrols could eventually make the YPG-led forces leave town, paving way for Turkish-backed forces to control Manbij, which would extend Turkey’s reach deeper in northern Syria.
In conjunction with greater US-Turkish cooperation, Ankara has increased its pressure over both Manbij and other YPG positions even more.
"Our goal is the exit of terror groups PYD/YPG from Manbij as soon as possible," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last weekend. PYD is the political wing of YPG in northern Syria.
There have also been media reports that Turkey is striking YPG targets across its border east of the Euphrates River.
Using the Syrian civil war as an opportunity, the YPG easily claimed large areas east of the Euphrates River in 2012, claiming to have created cantons across the region.
It appears the YPG’s domination has been tacitly permitted by the Assad regime, which has ties to the YPG’s umbrella organisation, the PKK, going back to the days of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and leader of the PKK.
There has been no significant fighting between the Assad regime and YPG since the beginning of the civil war. Even during Turkey’s Afrin operation earlier this year, some of the Assad regime-allied forces entered Afrin to support the YPG against the Turkish operation.
There are also Syrian regime military posts in Syria’s Hasaka province, run by Assad regime forces. The Hasaka province has been under YPG control since 2012.
The YPG has reportedly displaced non-Kurdish populations across northern Syria, according to its own political designs, aiming to create a Kurdish zone across the Turkish border.
De-escalation zones in the Idlib province
Beyond its own operations, Turkey has also been instrumental in avoiding human catastrophe—the likes of which took place during the regime’s Aleppo siege in 2016—in Idlib province. It has done so by agreeing in 2017 to create de-escalation zones in the last opposition stronghold in the whole of Syria, along with Russia and Iran.
Despite backing opposition groups against the Assad regime, Ankara decided to shift its Syria policy, joining with Moscow and Tehran—both of which back the Assad regime—to launch the Astana peace process, addressing the Syrian conflict in a peaceful manner in parallel to the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process.
Turkey’s shift came after realising that Washington and its Western allies will not make a significant commitment to the Syrian opposition’s cause. Under the new partnership of Turkey, Russia and Iran, the countries have created de-escalation zones in the Idlib province, committing their troops in the respective military posts to oversee a fragile ceasefire in the region.
In September, when the Assad regime threatened an imminent attack similar to its Aleppo slaughter against Idlib, Turkey’s diplomatic efforts played a critical role in stopping an all-out assault on Idlib.
President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to extend the countries’ de-escalation zones in northern Syria, ensuring the relative peace there to date.