Despair looms over Kurds in northeast Syria
“Please — take him,” the Arab woman said as she tried to hand me her 4-month-old son. He was wearing a stained light blue jacket with yellow ducking appliqués peeking out from the folds. Tears, locked away during our interview, were now streaming down her face, as if, in a contest of wills, they had finally won the battle.
I had met her, her husband and their four children a week after they fled Arishah, in northeastern Syria. It was a sunny day in mid-November. In her arms, she carried the four-month-old boy and his twin sister. Two more children were also in tow, the oldest, a serene girl with blonde hair and green eyes, just 4 years old. The Arab woman, Aisha, was young, in her early 20s, with fair skin and delicate features. We had spoken about the conditions in Arishah, a small village a dozen kilometres north of Tel Tamer, under threat by Turkey. Ankara started a new invasion, the third one in two years, after the U.S. President Donald Trump gave the green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on October 6 during a one-on-one phone call. As with other areas invaded by Turkish proxies, the Syrian National Army (SNA) had descended on the civilians of Arishah with brutal force, arresting them, looting homes and farm equipment, and imposing Islamist rule on the village.
Mohammed, her husband, had worked all his life in the fields surrounding Arishah. Now, she said, “We have nothing. We escaped with just our clothes. The çetê [literally bandits, but used to describe the Turkish proxies] took everything from us. They burnt down the house. They took the cows. I have nothing to feed my children,” she said, the rage in her face was followed by an expression of despair. If she gave away one of her twins to a foreign journalist, his welfare would be assured, she assumed, and perhaps, maybe, the rest of the family could also survive.
Erdoğan’s operation — so-called “Peace Spring” — started on October 9, three days after the infamous phone-call with Trump. Initially, Erdoğan claimed he wanted to establish a 30-kilometer deep “safe-zone” along the border where the Turkish government wished to push back the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its off-spring, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), that he claims are a threat to Turkey. He promised to settle 3 million Syrian refugees in the region, a move that would change the demography of the largely-Kurdish area, a move that has been described as ethnic cleansing. So far there has been no significant international response to Erdoğan’s invasion. In Serekanye (Ras al Ayn) and Gire Spi (Tal Abyad), the Kurds have been chased from their homes and are prevented from going back. Despite claims of a “ceasefire” first negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence, and later by Russians working with the Syrian regime, the offensive continues. Kurdish homes are routinely set on fire while Arab ones are looted.
Arishah was surrounded for more than a month by the Turkish forces. The SDF, the same militia that lost 11,000 lives fighting ISIS, tried to repel the Turkish attack. The family stayed in their house for 26 days. They hoped the offensive might end before reaching their doorstep.
But the extensive use of drone strikes and air power crippled SDF’s efforts to recapturing highly contested areas. The military power imbalance between the SDF and Turkey has been a serious issue since the beginning of the invasion. No one has prevented Turkey from using Syrian airspace. That left SDF with limited capacity in their defence. As of now, Ankara continues the offensive and has tried to win as much as territory as possible well outside the negotiated area.
Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. troops has opened to the door to a new balance of power in northeast Syria. Russia has taken control of several former U.S. Forward Operating Bases while pushing the northeastern Syria Kurdish self-administration, the governing body of the region, to negotiate with the regime of Bashar Assad. So far, Moscow has established 66 bases or observation points all over the country. Not even the Pentagon’s move to send back some 1,000 National Guard members to “protect the oil” could halt this new process.
Russia’s influence in Syria grows stronger each day. Meanwhile, Turkey’s aggression continues with almost daily shelling on key areas. For weeks there have been rumours about a possible attack on the Kurdish enclave of Kabana, while SNA are pushing further south supported by Ankara’s airpower. As a result, thousands have died or been injured while hundreds of thousands had fled their homes.
Mohammed’s family story illustrates the pattern of the Turkish invasion in northeast Syria. More than 300,000 people were displaced. Thousands live in camps or schools, which were turned into shelters.
The area around Tel Tamer has been under siege for almost two months now. Mohamed’s family felt trapped as the Turkish proxies took control of Arishah.
“Those bandits came to me and said I was under arrest. I still don’t know why,” he claimed. They took the animals in the garden and told them to wait as they were checking on the other families in the village. Mohamed and his family fled immediately.
“We just took the kids and walked towards the frontline. We knew the SDF would help us,” he said. And they did.
Zagros Kobani’s unit had been stationed on the hill in Tell Tawish since the beginning of this new war. From the top, you can see Arishah. The mixed unit of men and women lived in a semi-abandoned village overlooking the Khabur river. The 29-year-old YAT (Anti-terror) commander started fighting in his hometown of Kobani in 2014.
“My brother was killed by ISIS and I am fighting to avenge him,” he said while sitting on an orange thin mattress on the floor of a house turned into a FOB. He had dark hair and hazelnut eyes. He liked joking and had a contagious laughter. He fought almost every major battle against ISIS. The fight against the Turks is completely different than the war on ISIS, there is little ground combat, and most of the time they have to hide inside hoping the drones will not hit them.
“Terror is terror no matter where it comes from,” he said while comparing the SNA to the Islamic State. “They are the same, they have the same ethic.”
On November 15, early in the afternoon, one of his men called him via radio. “There were civilians, including children and a woman, walking towards us,” he recalled. He decided to send his team downhill and help the family. “When the family saw us, the mother almost cried. They knew we would protect them,” said Öcalan, a 22-year-old fighter, sitting next to Zagros. He is also from Kobani. This was the first time the unit had saved civilians in the area. Though they had extensive experience in human rescue.
“We did the same in most of the other fights. Raqqa, Tabqa, Baghouz,” he said.
As a member of an anti-terror Unit, Zagros fought shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Special Forces. He was trained by Americans.
“Soldiers are different from their governments,” he added though it was evident he was angry about the situation.
“The U.S. has betrayed us, the only thing we asked for is for a no-fly-zone. We don’t need any help on the ground,” he continued.
In the past two months Turkey raged war with different intensities. In the past week, it seems Ankara wants just the population of northeast Syria to bleed out slowly, ensuring the region a certain death. With the invasion, ISIS sleeper cells became very active. Terrorist attacks are increasing dramatically in cities such as Qamishli, Hasakah, and Deirzzor.
While Kurdish and Arab officials are trying to keep the morale high, people take to the streets almost every Friday to support fighters and boost confidence in the general population.
The offensive has taken a toll on the country’s economy; the Syrian Pound is falling and inflation is ramping up. Even though the self-administration continues to work and function hoping to give a sense of normality despite the war, a lot of people are afraid of the future.
“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said Zagros.
The feeling is shared by both fighters and civilians.
“Only one old woman stayed, we have no idea what happened to her,” explained Mohammed. When we met, his family was staying with friends in a village near Tel Tamer. Tough it was a temporary solution.
Now he doesn’t know how to provide for his family. All his possessions were either confiscated by the Turkish proxies or destroyed.
“We have nothing,” he kept repeating on November 22.
“We have no other choice, but to go to the camp,” Aisha said.
Ever since, her gesture has haunted me. I can’t stop thinking about it. There is something so deep and so tragic for a woman to give up her baby. I could feel her agony, I could sense her pain. As tears stained her face, I hugged her, I tried to console her, while saying I couldn’t. But she begged me again.
“Take my baby,” she said.
© Ahval English