Turkey-backed FSA launches operation on Syria’s Tal Rifaat region

The Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Saturday announced it had launched an operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in villages of the Tal Rifaat area north of Aleppo, pro-government Yeni Şafak newspaper reported. 

The report arrives after news on the killing of four Turkish soldiers in two separate cross-border attacks by Kurdish militants on Saturday, Reuters reported, quoting the Turkish defence ministry. Two soldiers were injured during the attacks.

One soldier was killed and another was lightly wounded after an attack by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in the mainly Kurdish-controlled region of Tel Rifaat, the defence ministry said.

Meanwhile, the villages of Maranaz, Malikiye and Shawarga in Tal Rifaat have reportedly been captured by the FSA.

The future status of this small sliver of Aleppo province may test the limits of Turkey and Russia’s ability to find common ground to cooperate in northwestern Syria.

Turkey and Russia began their first patrols near the Syrian city of Tal Rifaat in the last week of March. Unlike other patrols they began earlier in the nearby Idlib province, against the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, these patrols are around an area where the YPG has a presence. This may indicate that Russia is playing a similar role to that of the United States in the Arab-majority city of Manbij - preventing further conflict from breaking out between Turkey and the YPG. 

“In gaining Russian partnership to patrol Tal Rifaat, Turkey is using its regional leverage against the Kurds of northern Syria,” Professor Joshua Landis, a noted Syria expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Ahval.

“Russia is in effect punishing the YPG for its cooperation with the United States east of the Euphrates,” he said. “We don't know what Russia has asked Turkey for in exchange for its Tal Rifaat cooperation.”

Tal Rifaat is situated near the northwestern Turkish-occupied Afrin enclave. The YPG in Afrin captured Tal Rifaat and surrounding areas, including the Menagh Airbase, from an Islamist group in a February 2016 offensive. It then annexed these territories into its autonomous entity collectively naming them the Shahba Canton. After Turkey invaded Afrin in early 2018 several YPG forces withdrew from Afrin to the Shahba Canton. Tens of thousands Afrin Kurds also joined them, fearing Turkish-backed Syrian fighters. They remain there to this day in displaced person camps.

Turkey did not advance into Tal Rifaat after conquering Afrin, stating that Russian guarantees that there were no YPG fighters remaining there meant it had no need to do so. Syrian government forces – the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) - have re-established a presence in Tal Rifaat and Russian Military Police are also in the area.

The presence of these Russian military forces is key to preventing a major Turkish operation against the YPG in the wider Tal Rifaat area. However, Russia previously based Military Police in Afrin but withdrew them just before the Turkish invasion, likely because the YPG rejected its offer to hand over control of Afrin to Damascus in return for protection against Turkey.

More recently, there has been some indication that Russia has a similar strategy toward the Kurdish group in Tal Rifaat. On April 12, the South Front analysis website reported that local sources were already claiming “that the SAA and Russian forces may allow Turkey to crack down on the YPG in the area if the Kurdish group undertakes hostile actions against the SAA in this region or some other areas across northern Syria.” 

In late April, Turkey also began building a wall to separate Afrin from Tal Rifaat and the rest of the Shahba region. 

If the Russian-Turkish Tal Rifaat patrols ultimately follow the Manbij model, Turkey will probably want to persuade Russia to facilitate the removal of the YPG from the area. Under the Manbij roadmap between the United States and Turkey, introduced last June, both sides began “independent but coordinated patrols” in the area and then began joint patrols in November. While Turkish forces have not been allowed enter the city the United States is working with Turkey to vet members of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) military council that currently administers the city in order to placate Ankara’s staunch opposition to any YPG presence in the area. Turkey insists that any member of the council has to have been born in Manbij as a way to ensure that the city is governed entirely by natives.

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said both Russia and Turkey “are using the same language the U.S. and Turkey used for Manbij.”

The term “independent but coordinated patrols” was used verbatim to describe the Manbij patrols. Despite this identical language, Stein highlighted some fundamental differences between the two arrangements.

“I think what differs is the second part of the U.S.-Turkey arrangement calls for a formal vetting process of local actors, whereas in Tal Rifaat the regime is in charge and there will not be any such cooperation,” Stein told Ahval.

“The two issues are different because Russia works through the regime and the U.S. [through] the SDF,” he said. “Turkey can’t realistically call for the regime to leave.”

“So, no, I don't think we’ll see something truly analogous to the Manbij roadmap, although the drafters of press releases do like to copy and paste language.”

The YPG has used Shahba as a launch pad for hit-and-run attacks against Turkish forces and their proxies in Afrin as well as in the nearby border town of Azaz, which is part of the separate Turkish-controlled area captured from the Islamic State in the 2016-17 Euphrates Shield operation.

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based journalist and researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, believes that the patrol’s establishment “along the contact lines” between Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces and the YPG “are connected to news of several casualties in Afrin among Turkish servicemen and local armed pro-Turkish groups.”

“Patrols are a necessary measure to preserve trust with Turkey,” Akhmetov told Ahval News. “Most probably Russia is trying to the keep situation from possible escalation by demonstrative measures like military patrols.”

He also said that, “Russia doesn't have much leverage on the Kurdish militant insurgency in Afrin and nearby Tal Rifaat.”

This coupled with the fact that the YPG launch most of their attacks from Tal Rifaat against Turkish forces in Syria “makes the situation very ambivalent and dangerous”.

While the Turkish military invariably responds to YPG attacks in the areas it controls in northwest Syria by hitting the Tal Rifaat area with artillery bombardments, Akhmetov said, “this will not stop Kurdish insurgency attacks.”

“I think Russia could encourage the SAA to rein in the YPG in Tal Rifaat and surrounding areas, but it is not the case now,” he said.

“This area is under Russia’s zone of responsibility. This has been straining talks between Russia and Turkey since Ankara has questioned how genuine Moscow’s commitment is in considering its interest in fighting against terrorist entities endangering its security.”

Russia, Akhmetov said, had its own interests in Tal Rifaat. Moscow wants “to keep the area between the city of Aleppo and the road north up to the Turkish border going through Tal Rifaat stable,” he said.

“This route is set to become one of the principle lifelines for transportation of materials for the reconstruction of Syria,” he said. “In other words, constant contesting of control over this stretch of territory is not in the interest of Russia.”

“Another question is who would Russia ultimately prefer as a sole power controlling the road."