As the 120-hour period that Turkey agreed with the US to ‘pause’ its operation in northern Syria is set to expire on Tuesday evening at 10pm local time (7pm GMT) today, reports suggest that YPG/PKK terrorists have been trying to prevent civilians from crossing the border into Iraq.
The pause period agreed on October 17, allowed the withdrawal of the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, a group that both Turkey and the US lists as a terrorist organisation. Using the route opened by Turkish troops, YPG militants left Ras al Ayn for the Qamishli district of Hasakah city.
Qamishli was captured by the YPG in 2012 when Assad surrendered the area with almost no resistance. However, Syrian regime forces never completely withdrew as it largely kept control of the city with pro-regime forces holding the airport and a part of its centre.
After the US decided to abandon the YPG and withdraw its forces from Syria, the terror group struck a deal with the Syrian regime last week. While previous reports, before the regime-YPG deal, said it was the regime that was preventing civilians from crossing the border to Iraq, now reports suggest that it is YPG trying to keep the civilians in the area.
Syrians on the Iraqi side have said the passage was being made difficult by the YPG, according to a recent report from Reuters.
“I have no idea where we will go. Our future is gone,” said 24-year old Zainab Rassul, sitting alongside her mother in the dust of an unpaved road next to the border crossing frequented by trucks.
“I’m in my final year of studies of Arabic language but I don’t think I will be able to complete my studies,” she told Reuters, almost crying.
A previous report from Reuters on October 16 said the civilians were now trying to flee via human smugglers.
Many of those Syrians who managed to flee from the YPG-controlled areas are now housed at Bardash refugee camp in Iraq, originally set up in 2014 for Iraqis fleeing Daesh.
According to a report by Reuters, Syrians, including ethnic Kurds, are trying to flee to Iraq via smugglers which charge hundreds of dollars to take them from the crossing at an informal border point, as the YPG forces don’t let them through their checkpoint.
“They [the YPG] threatened us, told us they’d shoot at us, even though they’re our people,” Akram, a Syrian said. “They’re worried that if we all leave, there won’t be any Kurds left.”
Turkey insists that its fight is not against ethnic Kurds, but against the YPG and PKK. Turkey has battled a 40-year insurgency by the PKK that has killed approximately 40,000 Turkish citizens.
With the operation that it launched on October 9, Ankara plans to secure a safe zone to safely resettle at least two million of around four million refugees that it currently hosts in Turkey, and ensure the territorial integrity of Syria.
Turkey also says that YPG militants didn’t leave Arab-dominated areas with their original inhabitants after taking them over from Daesh.
Turkey has no plans for demographic change in northeastern Syria, and both Arabs and Kurds would be able to return to their home once the region will be cleared of the terrorists, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said on Tuesday.
“If you look at our previous military operations against Daesh or PKK, we have never changed the demographic composition of the population,” Kalin told German media, referring to Turkey’s previous anti-terror operations between 2016 and 2018 in northwestern Syria.
Speaking in Sochi on October 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said if the US fails to fulfil its pledge in northeast Syria, Turkey will resume its operation with greater determination after the pause period.
Qamishli doesn’t fall under the 32 km-deep, 120 km-long border area designated as a safe zone by Ankara, and no clashes are expected there.